Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shipwrecks and castaways

I've blogged about a lot of books I've read recently but haven't written about two of my most favorite books ever: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. Although Robinson Crusoe is usually considered a children's book, I don't think many children will find it an easy read. It was one of the first novels ever written and published almost 300 years ago so the language is from another time and a little more challenging. But if you're willing to spend some time getting used to it you'll realize there's a good reason it's a classic. And even if you're familiar with the story (I expect almost everyone is) you've missed out if you haven't read it before.

As a young man, Robinson Crusoe goes to sea against his father's wishes and lives to regret it. In spite of promptly being shipwrecked he goes again, and finds himself enslaved by the Moors for a year before escaping. He ends up in Brazil and becomes a well-to-do plantation owner before his greed gets the better of him and he once again ends up shipwrecked, this time on a small Caribbean island. Being the only survivor, he manages to save what he can from the shipwreck and builds a safe shelter. He plants crops, domesticates wild goats, and learns to be comfortable over the nearly 30 years he spends there, most of it alone. And parts of the story are highly religious in nature as he eventually develops a personal relationship with God.

The Mysterious Island isn't quite as well-known but also deals with castaways on a deserted island. Five Americans being held as prisoners of war in Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War hijack a hot air balloon during a terrible storm and end up in the South Pacific several terrifying days later. And you couldn't pick better men to be marooned with as their ingenuity and resourcefulness help them to survive on the island and establish a bit of civilization. The mystery of the island is several unexplainable events that happen, often at the most crucial and fortunate times. It's actually a sequel to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but for the most part there aren't many connections and they're actually very different books.

Neither story is an action-packed-thrill-a-minute-adventure we've come to expect as entertainment, but I think the ways the men find to survive is more than enough compensation for a slower pace. And it almost makes being stranded on an uninhabited island seem like an adventure, or at least a great escape. It's also interesting how they not only survive but grow from their experiences and become better people for their trials. Just because they find themselves cut off from society doesn't mean they abandon their morals and ethics, and Lord of the Flies was a very interesting contrast where castaways devolve into fear and murder. I can't always sit down and reread some of the great histories I've read, but these books bear up nicely under multiple readings. I've read each of them at least twice, and it might just be time to read one of them again.

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