Three hundred years ago a Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk was abandoned on a small, uninhabited South Pacific island off the coast of Chile. There he stayed for more than four years surviving on the local flora and fauna and keeping a watch out for friendly (British) ships. Once back home his story aroused great interest. Some even think that Selkirk was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s classic novel Robinson Crusoe.
Whether that is true or not is unknown, but what is certain is the enduring popularity of novels that pit the protagonist against Mother Nature in a struggle for survival. Through these novels we are transported to exotic places and face desperate challenges without leaving the safety of our favorite chair or suffering the consequences of our mistakes and miscalculations. Could we stay alive until we were rescued or found a way home? Could we find fresh water? What would we eat? What about shelter? Fire? Predators? Tools? Weapons? The dangers seem endless.
Clearly, to survive under these challenging conditions and return safely home one would have to summon all the courage, inner strength, and determination that one could muster. Those are just the qualities needed for another important aspect of this type of adventure – personal transformation. The main characters in these riveting adventures may have, in the end, left the wilderness behind, but retain a confidence and inner strength that will serve them well once back home.
In Abel’s Island by William Steig, Abel (an affluent mouse who leads a life free of work and worry) discovers in the end what is truly important. For Sam Gribley in Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain surviving in the wilderness was a choice that helped him discover the true meaning of family and friendship. In Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell Karana learns important lessons on trust and the value of animals in her world. Brian in Hatchet by Gary Paulsen returns home an accomplished outdoorsman and better equipped to handle his parent’s divorce. Even Alexander Selkirk, who by most accounts was a very disagreeable sort before his ordeal, returned to civilization a changed man, at peace with himself and others – at least for a while.