Necessity Is the Mother of Invention: A Book Review of the Swiss Family Robinson

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss is really about innovation and making lemonade when life dishes out lemons. First published in 1812, the story is about a Swiss pastor and his family (wife and four sons) who survive a shipwreck and create a new way of life on an unexplored island in the East Indies.

While reading, be mindful of the time the book was written, and focus on the lessons that can be gleaned instead. This family was very inventive and demonstrated that there is truth to the adage that we are hindered only by our imagination. They repurposed a lot of materials to survive. For example, they built a raft from empty barrels, made rubber shoes from the sap of a tree, constructed a tent from the sails of the ship, a tree house from sails and wood from the ship, a bridge from planks and beams loosened from the shipwreck, and utensils from calabash.

The pastor allowed his children to think independently and experiment to find their own solutions. “…As we went along I often tasted my [sugar] cane; Fritz tried to do the same, but found he could not extract any juice. ‘How is this, father?’ he said. ‘Think a little,’ I replied, ‘and I am sure you will find the reason; you do not yet employ the right means.’ He soon discovered that he must make a small hole above the knot of the cane to let in the air…”

He was also open to suggestions from his family and had a willingness to attempt something new. But, as the adventures unfolded, I constantly wondered if these people experienced any colossal failures. They faced many challenges and overcame them because they persisted and had a strong desire to succeed, but does anyone ever go through life without experiencing major failures?

The family, especially the father, tried to anticipate obstacles and eventualities to mitigate risks, which is a good practice to follow, but I was extremely weary of their ability to control the outcome of so many things. For the story to work for me, it was important for me to know the father’s background. He was obviously very knowledgeable and well read. He knew about many things: architecture, plants and animals, but where did all this knowledge come from, and where did he find the time to acquire that wealth on knowledge? How can one person know so much about so many different things, especially back then?

Too many questions and not enough answers so I decided to let it go and focus on some great ideas in the Swiss Family Robinson.

11 Great Ideas

  1. Praise people especially children on a job well done
  2. Make time to eat at least one meal each day with family to check in with each other
  3. Small successes lead to bigger successes
  4. To get to where you want to go you have to put in the time
  5. Vary the way you do things – travel a different route to work once in a while, eat foods from different cultures, develop different processes for the way you do something
  6. Take time to admire nature’s bounty
  7. Through trial and error we will finally get it right
  8. An obstacle or challenge is an opportunity in disguise
  9. Give thanks, even for the smallest thing
  10. Understanding the end goal makes even the toughest journey worthwhile
  11. Practice forgiveness

I didn’t like many aspects of the book including the children’s eagerness to kill animals, but I learned a lot of lessons, appreciated the reminder about being grateful for everything. I believed The Swiss Family Robinson was worth my time reading. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention!