Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

For the past three years, I have kicked off my reading in the month of January with a Jules Verne novel. I never really intended to establish this as a tradition. I wasn't even a big Jules Verne fan when I started doing it. I just happened to start off my reading in 2016 with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and I thought it would be kind of fun to do Journey to the Center of the Earth as my first read in 2017. When 2018 rolled around, I figured that I might as well keep it going and tackle Around the World in Eighty Days for my first read. That novel ended up becoming a favorite for me, and I started to really appreciate the creativity and science in Verne's writing. Now that it's 2019, I can't imagine starting off the year any other way than with another classic Jules Verne adventure.

When it comes to Verne novels, most people have only heard of the three that I already read (myself included). Accordingly, I had to do a little digging around on Amazon to find another one. One title that kept popping up in my search was The Mysterious Island, so I went ahead and ordered it. Once it actually arrived, I was very surprised at the length. At nearly 600 pages, this would be the longest Verne novel I had read by far. I was more than a little concerned that his trademark scientific prose might run on and on and get a bit boring. Those lengthy scientific passages filled with Latin names and detailed theories are always my least favorite part of his books. However, as I was soon to find out, this is a very different novel to the ones I had read in the past. I didn't need to be worried about this science. I didn't need to worry about the length. I didn't need to worry about anything at all, because, as I soon found out, The Mysterious Island is amazing.

The story starts off in the midst of a disaster that could only come from the mind of Jules Verne. Five men and a dog are attempting a daring hot air balloon escape from a Confederate prison camp in the midst of a hurricane. Things are not going well. There is a tear in the balloon that they cannot repair, the storm is raging wildly around them, and they are slowly but surely sinking lower and lower towards an endless stretch of ocean. They ditch all the supplies they have with them in an attempt to lighten the balloon's load, but eventually they crash into the ocean. Luckily for them, they wash up on the shores of a deserted (and mysterious, of course) island. They have no idea where they are and have nothing with them except the clothes on their backs. They appear to be completely alone.

From that moment on, the group is engaged in a constant struggle to survive. The island is composed of a variety of challenging terrains and dangerous wildlife, and the climate is harsh and unforgiving. Luckily, the men are well-equipped to handle it. Each member of the party has unique skills and knowledge that combine to keep everyone safe. Cyrus Harding, the group's leader, brings his engineering skills, Neb, a freed slave, brings culinary talents, Gideon Spilett, a reporter, brings his investigative know-how, Bonadventure Pencroft, a sailor, brings his nautical expertise, and Herbert Brown, a fifteen year old orphan, brings a vast knowledge of plant and animal species. Everyone takes an equal share in the work of establishing a homestead and through their ingenuity and persistence, they accomplish some pretty incredible things.

The Mysterious Island is a true survival story, similar to The Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Crusoe.  It's also a fun adventure, full of exciting action sequences, surprising plot twists, and a very intriguing mystery to solve. While this isn't Verne's flashiest novel, it has a lot of charm. The writing is lighthearted, the science isn't overwhelming, and the characters are lovable. There is even an orangutan butler eventually, and let's be honest, not much can beat that.

I think, perhaps, that what I enjoyed the most of all in the novel were the four simple words, "nothing could be easier." These words were uttered many times by many characters in response to all sorts of difficulties. We need to forge our own steel? Nothing could be easier! We need to make our own explosives? Nothing could be easier! We need to build a working telegraph? Nothing could be easier!  We need to reckon our latitude and longitude using sticks and shadows? Nothing could be easier! The castaways were so relentlessly optimistic and resourceful that their accomplishments became a satisfying mix of amazing and hilarious. I couldn't wait to see what incredibly difficult thing they would find easy next.

Another neat aspect of the novel was the inclusion of characters from Verne's other stories. Two figures from his other books show up in The Mysterious Island, one of which is one of his most famous and beloved characters. To say more would spoil a major plot point, so all I will say is that I was so pleased to meet this character again and see what he was up to.

The Mysterious Island  was an immensely enjoyable reading experience. The pages were full of adventure after adventure, and the science, rather than bog the story down, imbued it with a sense of wonder. It made me feel like anything is possible, as long as you have enough brains and optimism. This was a fantastically clever little story and a wonderful way to kick off 2019. Out of the Verne novels I have read so far, this one is my second favorite, just behind Around the World in 80 Days. I can't wait to give another one of his books a shot next year. 

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2019 (a classic in translation): 1/12 Books Read

Total Books Read in 2019: 1

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