The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne (Rainbow Classics Edition, World Publishing Company, 1957)
It’s March 1865, and the American Civil War is raging. Five Northerners (and a dog), trapped in Southern-held Richmond, Virginia, stage a daring escape in a balloon during a wild storm. They mean to rejoin the Northern forces, but the storm carries them to an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean.
The Mysterious Island is a tale of the triumph of human ingenuity, perseverance and courage … with occasional help from an anonymous benefactor. That’s where the mystery comes in. The island has no other inhabitants, yet the castaways/settlers experience a number of “coincidences” and interventions.
The novel was first published 1874 as three serials in magazines. It’s subdivided into sections: Dropped from the Clouds, Abandoned, and The Secret of the Island.
It doesn’t match twenty-first-century codes of writing style and political correctness. The narration is formal and of passive construction, in omniscient point of view. Of the main characters, the white sailor and the black servant naturally do the cooking and grunt work, and of course the term “African-American” hasn’t been coined yet.
The science is almost 130 years out of date. The moon, for example, is referred to as a cold star. The characters’ thoughts on the future make for interesting reading.
If you read the novel looking for things to criticize, you’ll find these sorts of things as well as some logistical ones. For example, the escapees threw everything out of the balloon to stay aloft, then cut the ropes to let the basket fall too, then landed on the island and didn’t have any knives. How did they cut the ropes?
On the other hand, if you read it looking for adventure, you’ll find that too. We have four men, a teen boy and a dog, cast onto the island with only their wits and the clothes on their backs. And the dog’s collar, and a match in one pocket, and a kernel of corn in another.
In the four years covered by the novel, the settlers become fully self-sufficient. They make bricks; smelt iron ore; concoct and use nitro glycerine; make bows and arrows, saws etc; establish a thriving garden and livestock enclosure; build a small boat. And the list goes on.
Realistic? Probably not. But it’s a lot of fun to see what they do. I admire their determination to make the best of a bad thing, and their kindness when they have the chance to help another castaway. I also appreciate their faith in their Creator. They know there’s a higher power than humankind, and they’re thankful He caused their balloon to reach the island before collapsing.
The other castaway introduces the possibility of villains turning good (other villains in the novel do not experience changes of heart) and this is relevant when the men finally meet their mysterious benefactor. All I’ll say here is that he’s an outlaw. But he’s saved their lives multiple times.
At over 600 pages, The Mysterious Island is not a light read, but it’s fun. And it has great scope for a movie, as-is. Why those who’ve adapted it to screen have felt the need to add things like giant crabs, time travel and Palpatine-type lightning bolts is beyond me. The few clips I’ve seen are enough to prove it’s not the same story.
According to Wikipedia, Jules Verne is “the second most translated author in the world (after Agatha Christie).” He’s certainly given a lot of readers many imagination-filled hours.
[Review copy from my personal library.]