Book Review: Perseverance Island Or The Robinson Crusoe Of The Nineteenth Century, Douglas Frazar (1885)


O the joys of wanna be Victorian Robinson Crusoes…

3/5 (Average)

Douglas Frazar’s ‘Perseverance Island or the Robinson Crusoe of the Nineteenth Century’ (1885) is the American Victorian reinterpretation of Robinson Crusoe and it shares shelf space with such classics as Drums along the Mohawk, Mysterious Island, Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers, Face au drapeau, Robur-le-Conquérant, and the recently available Verne masterpiece, Paris au XXe siècle.

BUT, Perseverance Island remains crisp firmly in my memory after all these years for not being in the same league as these classics. However, the more I think about the key books of my youth the more this one asserts itself as one of the most important.

The story is told from the first person perspective of William Anderson the last survivor of the schooner Good Luck who writes about his youth, voyage, shipwreck, and survival on an island.

Of course, with only one character stranded the book logically follows his attempts at making fires, finding water, killing birds, making traps, catching sea turtles, etc. Frazar makes the legitimate point that unlike Robinson Crusoe where the shipwreck with all the necessary goods for easier life is accessible “this unfortunate [William Anderson] had no such accessories; and his story proves the limitless ingenuity and invention of man.”

The book does not live up to this vaulted goal – but rather dissolves into utter ridiculous and pathetic shows of limitless (and impossible) manifestations of human ingenuity (or rather magical conjuring experiments of every necessary mineral, metal, technology).

These progression of these chapter subject headings illustrates my point -Hat Making, Knife Hammer and Spear, Discovery of Coal, Discovery of Sulphur, Steel, Cement, Iron, Astrolabe, Rifles, Submarine (Goat Powered), Steam Yacht, and eventually Chess and Backgammon (With a Goat).

I understand that this is a ‘realistic’ form of fantasy writing but there are extremes to the ingenuity of man and the availability of an island with all the resources of the world. So is Frazar actually exploring the ingenuity of man? Or rather what man if he already had everything? But that said, I suppose the genre had been relatively sucked dry by his illustrious predecessors – Verne and Defoe – and showing the humanity of goats was Frazar’s single original idea (but then again there’s a domesticated Orangutan in Verne’s masterful social commentary Mysterious Island .

Condemnatory to the extreme I know, but I present a contradictory statement: this book will always remain important to me for although I could not tolerate the ridiculous second half it did illustrate the possibilities of human imagination, however impossible.

This is still a worthy buy – but pick up the original 1885 edition if possible with maps, pictures, and charts. The image of the goat playing backgammon has been seared forever onto my retinas!

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