And Then I Read: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND by Jules Verne

First American edition.

Near the end of the American Civil War, a group of five Northern prisoners and a dog escape from Richmond in a hot air balloon during a fierce storm. They are railroad engineer Captain Cyrus Harding (Smith in the original French version), his black servant Neb, a career sailor Pencroft (Pencroff originally), his adopted son Herbert Brown (Harbert originally), and journalist Gideon Spilett, as well as Harding’s dog Top. After moving rapidly in the storm for several days, the balloon crashes in the ocean near a large volcanic island in the South Pacific far from any other land or country, and the escapees are marooned there for several years. They name it Lincoln Island. Strange help from some unknown source comes occasionally when they most need it, as right in the beginning when Captain Harding is presumed drowned after the balloon crash, but is found unconscious but alive some way inland, carried there by an unknown method. When he recovers, Harding begins the work of gradually creating a new life and civilization for the men through his knowledge and raw materials they find, and helped by another gift of tools. They created a secure home in a cave, gather and farm food plants, capture and raise animals, and explore the island. Their unknown benefactor remains a mystery, but help from him arrives in times of direst need, as when a shipload of pirates arrives and attacks the colony. After the colonists build a small sailing ship, a message in a bottle sends them to another distant lonely island where a criminal has been living as a hermit for years, and has reverted to a primitive state. The hermit is brought back to Lincoln Island and his senses and intelligence gradually return, but his deep sorrow over his past wicked deeds haunts him. After some years, the secret of their benefactor is finally revealed when that benefactor is on his death bed. Both the benefactor and the rescued criminal are characters from previous Verne books.

Later, as they work to build a larger sailing ship to finally take them away, the volcano on Lincoln Island erupts and throws everything into chaos. Will the colonists be able to survive the violent explosion, flows of lava, and earthquakes, or will they finally perish?

This was a good read, though it’s a very long book. The original French version is almost 200,000 words. I read a much abridged version many years ago, the one I found online from Project Gutenberg is, I think, about 180,000 words, so still somewhat abridged, but closer to the original work. It’s a classic men’s adventure story with plenty of the science and information Verne liked to include in these stories, but also plenty of action and drama. It connects to two earlier Verne books, though the timeline does not match up at all. If you can ignore that, and I could, it’s a fun return to those characters. This is sort of Verne’s version of “Robinson Crusoe” and “Swiss Family Robinson,” but he starts his stranded men off with almost nothing. A single match and a single grain of corn, for instance. Their intelligence and resourcefulness must do the rest, with a little help from their benefactor, and things don’t always go well, but they persevere. Recommended. You can find the free ebook online, as I did, or try this recent translation that might be better.

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