Swiss Family Robinson: Brandy and Pants

[Swiss Family Robinson Content Note: Drowning]

The Swiss Family Robinson, Chapter 1: Shipwrecked

When we last left our little family, they were huddling in their private cabin working through their understandable grief that the sailors left them behind when they all abandoned ship. Wife/Mother/Elizabeth understands that routine helps people cope in hard times and insists that they eat supper and get as good a night's sleep as they can. Fritz, the eldest-- I suddenly realize I'm going to need a cheat sheet for this. Hang on.

Fritz - 15
Ernest - 13
Jack - 11
Franz - 8

Fritz stays up with Husband/Father/William and broods because he's older than the others and therefore recognizes that this isn't a grand adventure (he's already been snippy with Franz and been scolded by Father for his attitude). He points out that only himself and Father can swim, and suggests that they make "swimming-belts" for Mother and the other boys. Father agrees that this is a good idea and wakes up Mother and the boys to fit them with custom-made belts that they've made by stringing together "a number of empty flasks and tin canisters".

This is the first of a theme that we'll see throughout the book: decisions which are intended to be seen as Independent and Rugged and Clever but which ultimately (and accidentally) underscore that both Father and the author don't really have as much hardy knowledge about the wilderness as they think they do. In this case, I really doubt that a few tin food canisters are going to have the buoyancy to keep someone afloat, AND they're currently inside an enclosed wooden cabin so if the place does flood then a flotation device could actively hinder them from leaving the cabin, AND the storm is still actively whipping up waves which would further compromise the flotation devices, AND I'm not 100% certain of the temperature of the water but I'm guessing it's probably cold enough that the temperature would be as much if not more of a threat than drowning. Probably would've been better to just let Mother and the boys sleep.

Morning comes and the storm has abated and the sky is blue.

   I aroused the boys, and we assembled on the remaining portion of the deck, when they, to their surprise, discovered that no one else was on board.

Father already knew that the sailors were gone, but apparently he kept that news to himself until now. I guess he didn't want to panic the children? I double-checked and this doesn't seem to be a continuity error; he really just didn't tell anyone. (Even his wife?) I find that a little surprising, but I'm not going to criticize this particular parenting decision when there are plenty of other decisions coming up to criticize. For example: Father's bizarre choice to now spin the sailors' escape as an act of callous cruelty rather than of simply forgetting the family was on-board, which was Father's earlier theory.

   'My good children,' I replied, 'we must not despair, although we seem deserted. See how those on whose skill and good faith we depended have left us cruelly to our fate in the hour of danger. God will never do so. He has not forsaken us, and we will trust Him still.'

He's really getting a headstart on training up Christian children to have a martyrdom chip on their shoulder, isn't he?

Fritz suggests that the sea is now calm enough to swim, apparently forgetting his earlier point that only he and Father can swim; Ernest hops in to remind him and to suggest a raft, which Father immediately discards as unstable and unsafe. He tells everyone to explore and examine and to apply their minds to the puzzle and the party splits up.

Father goes to inventory the fresh water and food supplies. Mother and Franz "attend to the unfortunate animals on board, who were in a pitiful plight, having been neglected for several days." Fritz runs to the "arms chest" to secure as many guns as he can find and we'll be seeing a LOT of those in the upcoming pages and indeed really the rest of the book. Ernest looks for "tools". Jack searches the captain's cabin which immediately yields "two splendid large dogs".

The author falls into the All Animals Are Dogs trope and thinks that all animals have a strong enough spine to be ridden, so Jack "seizing the larger by the ears, he jumped on his back, and, to my great amusement, coolly rode to meet me as I came up the hatchway. I could not refrain from laughing at the sight, and I praised his courage, but warned him to be cautious and remember that animals of this species might, in a state of hunger, be dangerous." Kissmate has his head in his hands and urges you all not to allow your 11 year olds to attempt to ride a dog, no matter how large it may be.

   When we reassembled in the cabin, we all displayed our treasures.
   Fritz brought a couple of guns, shot belt, powder-flasks, and plenty of bullets.
   Ernest produced a cap full of nails, a pair of large scissors, an axe, and a hammer, while pincers, chisels and augers stuck out of all his pockets.
   Even little Franz* carried a box of no small size, and eagerly began to show us the `nice sharp little hooks' it contained. His brothers smiled scornfully. (* Some editions translate this to Francis, apparently to avoid confusion with Fritz. I see no reason for the change, and am retaining the original spelling. Editor.)
   'Well, done, Franz!' cried I, 'these fish hooks, which you the youngest have found, may contribute more than anything else in the ship to save our lives by procuring food for us. Fritz and Ernest, you have chosen well.'
   'Will you praise me too?' said my dear wife. 'I have nothing to show, but I can give you good news. Some useful animals are still alive: a donkey, two goats, six sheep, a ram, and a cow and a fine sow both big with young. I was but just in time to save their lives by taking food to them. The goats I milked, though I do not know how I shall preserve the milk in this dreadful heat.'
   'All these things are excellent indeed,' said I, 'but my friend Jack here has presented me with a couple of huge hungry useless dogs, who will eat more than any of us.'
   'Oh, papa! They will be of use! Why, they will help us to hunt when we get on shore!'
   'No doubt they will, if ever we do get on shore, Jack; but I must say I don't know how it is to be done.'

I'm not quite sure what to make of Father's assumption that the dogs are useless. If my memory serves, they are going to end up being very useful indeed to the family; they provide companionship, they help with hunting, they serve as a warning system to dangers, and they protect the family from various threats. Perhaps this is meant to be a moment of humility for Father, a topic on which he is wrong and the author *knows* he is wrong (unlike all the times where he's wrong but the author thinks he's right). But at the same time, it is worth noting here that Father and the author will maintain this callous attitude towards animals throughout the book; any time the family discovers something new, their first and immediate thought is "how do we USE it" and if they cannot think of an answer then the animal is usually treated with disdain if not outright cruelty. While I certainly do not begrudge people in a survival situation thinking about how to best utilize the resources around them, there is a subtle difference between Utilization and Exploitation.

Anyway. There still remains the problem of how to get to land. Jack suggests they make tubs and float to shore, which leads Father to a plan which he certainly thinks is clever but I have my doubts. He finds four large empty brandy casks and saws them in half to create eight half-casks. After a break for biscuits, goat milk, and wine--with the editor noting that Europeans didn't drink water because it was often unsafe to drink, so even children were fed diluted wine at meals--they then lash the eight half-casks together in a row. Three "long thin planks" are scrounged up: one to form a floor under the half-casks, and the other two provide walls on either side. We are assured that this creates a stable boat, but Kissmate is very skeptical. The boat is too heavy for them all to lift/push into the water, so we have a brief treatise on levers.

   I explained, as well as I could in a hurry, the principle of Archimedes' lever; from which he said he could move the world if he had a point from which his mechanism might operate, and promised to have a long talk on the subject of mechanics when we should be safe on land.

Having been a young boy once myself, I am sure these boys were just *enthralled*. /sarcasm

The long narrow boat is, shockingly, incredibly unbalanced in the water so Father immediately creates and installs outriggers--those long poles that provide a counter-balance to canoes. The author speeds by this invention incredibly quickly, probably so we won't ask how Father is able to accomplish this while the boat is in the water and before it manages to sink itself. The boys are able to produce oars from somewhere, and Father deems that it's getting late and they need to spend another night on the ship. Everyone returns to the cabin, puts on a swimming-belt, and Father convinces Mother to wear pants, which the editor notes would have been incredibly scandalous for the time period.

   We prepared for rest in a much happier frame of mind than on the preceding day, but I did not forget the possibility of a renewed storm, and therefore made every one put on the belts as before. I persuaded my wife (not without considerable difficulty), to put on a sailor's dress, assuring her she would find it much more comfortable and convenient for all she would have to go through.
   She at last consented to do this, and left us for a short time, reappearing with much embarrassment and many blushes, in a most becoming suit, which she had found in a midshipman's chest.* We all admired her costume, and any awkwardness she felt soon began to pass off; then we retired to our hammocks, where peaceful sleep prepared us all for the exertions of the coming day.
   (* At the time this book was written, women always wore long skirts. A woman wearing trousers would be considered so shocking that if she were so garbed on a public street she would probably be arrested for indecency. Editor.)

Next time: a brandy-cask boat and shore!

Open Thread: April Seed Moon

There are a lot of names for the monthly moons. As a Wiccan practitioner, my favorite name for the April full moon is the Seed Moon. What's yours?

Open Threads are for socializing and sharing! What have you been reading / writing / listening / playing / watching lately? Shamelessly self-promote or boost the signal on something you think we should know about.