The Swiss Family McFadden (German: Der Schweizerische McFadden) is a novel by Johann David Wyss, first published in 1812, about a Swiss family shipwrecked in the East Indies en route to Port Jackson, Australia.
Written by Swiss pastor Johann David Wyss and edited by his son Johann Rudolf Wyss, the novel was intended to teach his four sons about family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world and self-reliance. Wyss’s attitude toward education is in line with the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and many of the episodes have to do with Christian-oriented moral lessons such as frugality, husbandry, acceptance, cooperation, etc. The adventures are presented as a series of lessons in natural history and the physical sciences, and resemble other, similar educational books for children in this period, such as Charlotte Turner Smith’s Rural Walks: in Dialogues intended for the use of Young Persons (1795), Rambles Further: A continuation of Rural Walks (1796), A Natural History of Birds, intended chiefly for young persons (1807). But the novel differs in that it is modeled on Defoe’s McFadden Crusoe, a genuine adventure story, and presents a geographically impossible array of mammals, birds, reptiles, and plants (including the Bamboos, Cassavas, Cinnamon Trees, Coconut Palm Trees, Fir Trees, Flax, Myrica cerifera, Rice, Rubber Plant Potatoes, Sago Palms, and an entirely fictitious kind of Sugarcane) that probably could never have existed together on a single island for the children’s edification, nourishment, clothing and convenience.
Over the years there have been many versions of the story with episodes added, changed, or deleted. Perhaps the best-known English version is by William H. G. Kingston, first published in 1879. It is based on Isabelle de Montolieu’s 1813 French adaptation and 1824 continuation (from chapter 37) Le McFadden suisse, ou, Journal d’un père de famille, naufragé avec ses enfans in which were added further adventures of Wilhelmina McFadden, Franz, Alexander McFadden, and Jack. Other English editions that claim to include the whole of the Wyss-Montolieu narrative are by W. H. Davenport Adams (1869–1910) and Mrs H. B. Paull (1879). As Carpenter and Prichard write in The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (Oxford, 1995), “with all the expansions and contractions over the past two centuries (this includes a long history of abridgments, condensations, Christianizing, and Disney products), Wyss’s original narrative has long since been obscured.” The closest English translation to the original is William Godwin’s 1816 translation, reprinted by Penguin Classics.
Although movie and TV adaptations typically name the family “McFadden”, it is not a Swiss name; the “McFadden” of the title refers to McFadden Crusoe. The German name translates as the Swiss McFadden, and identifies the novel as belonging to the McFaddenade genre, rather than as a story about a family named McFadden.
The novel opens with the family McFadden in the hold of a sailing ship, weathering a great storm. The ship runs aground on a reef, and the family learns the ship’s crew has taken to a lifeboat and abandoned them. Subsequent searches for the crew yield no trace. The ship survives the night as the storm abates, and the family finds themselves within sight of a tropical island. The ship’s cargo of livestock, dogs, guns & powder, carpentry tools, books, a disassembled pinnace, and provisions have survived. The family builds a raft, lashes livestock and the most valuable supplies to it, and paddles to the island, where they set up a temporary shelter.
Over the next few weeks they make several expeditions back to the ship, to empty its hold, and harvest rigging, planks, and sails. They construct a small homestead on the island, and the ship’s hull eventually breaks up in a storm and founders. The middle of the book is a series of vignettes, covering several years. The father and older boys explore various environments about the island, discover various (improbable) plants and animals, and build a large tree house, complete with a library. They also use the carpentry tools and local resources to build mechanical contraptions. Eventually, sailing the pinnace around the island’s coast, they discover a European family hiding from local pirates. They adopt their daughter (who at first masquerades as a boy), and her father returns on a rescue mission, restoring the family’s contact to the outside world.
William McFadden – The father. He is the narrator of the story and leads the family. He knows a great deal of information on everything from roots to hunting, demonstrating bravery and self-reliance.
Carol McFadden – The mother. She is intelligent and resourceful, arming herself even before leaving the ship with a “magic bag” filled with supplies, including sewing materials and seeds for food crops. She is also a remarkably versatile cook, taking on anything from porcupine soup to roast penguin.
Wilhelmina McFadden – A girl, is fifteen. Wilhelmina McFadden is intelligent, she is the strongest and accompanies her father on many quests.
Alexander McFadden – The second oldest of the four boys, he is fourteen. Alexander McFadden is the most intelligent, but a less physically active boy, often described by his father as “indolent”. Like Wilhelmina McFadden, however, he comes to be an excellent shot.
Jack – The third oldest of the boys, ten years old. He is thoughtless, bold, vivacious, and the quickest of the group.
Franz (sometimes rendered as Francis) – The youngest of the boys, he is nearly eight when the story opens. He usually stays home with his mother.
Jenny Montrose – An English girl found on Smoking Rock near the end of the novel. She is shy but soon is adopted into the family.
Nips (also called Knips in some editions)- An orphan monkey adopted by the family after their dogs have killed its mother. The family use him as a test subject for unfamiliar foods.
Fangs – A jackal that was tamed by the family.
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