Written by Swiss pastor Johann David Wyss, edited by his son Johann Rudolf Wyss and illustrated by another son, Johann Emmanuel Wyss, the novel was intended to teach his four sons about family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world and self-reliance. Wyss' attitude toward education is in line with the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and many episodes involve Christian-oriented moral lessons such as frugality, husbandry, acceptance and cooperation. The book presents a geographically impossible array of large mammals and plants that probably could never have existed together on a single island, for the children's education, nourishment, clothing and convenience. The novel opens with the family in the hold of a sailing ship, weathering a great storm. The ships' passengers evacuate without them, and William and Elizabeth and their four children (Fritz, Ernest, Jack and Francis) are left to survive alone. As the ship tosses about, the father - William - prays that God will spare them. The ship survives the night and the family finds themselves within sight of a tropical desert island. The next morning, they decide to get to the island they can see beyond the reef. With much effort, they construct a vessel out of tubs. After they fill the tubs with food and ammunition and all other articles of value they can safely carry, they row toward the island. Two dogs from the ship named Turk and Juno swim beside them. The ship's cargo of livestock (including chickens, domestic ducks, domestic geese, and domestic pigeons), guns & powder, carpentry tools, books, a disassembled pinnace, and provisions have survived.