It ain’t Swiss Family Robinson. The Fox family—the subject of this excellent but grim novel by Paul Theroux—lights out for jungle territory. While the Swiss version has been a classic since its publication in 1812—its popularity enhanced by the Disney film version—this 1982 novel has all of the tragedy and none of the light-heartedness of the earlier tale. Yes, there is a moment midway when it appears that the Fox family may actually succeed in homesteading in the Honduran jungle, but this Swiss Family Robinson moment is short-lived, sabotaged by Allie Fox, the patriarch of the family. Let me emphasize that word patriarch, as he is an obsessed paranoid controlling father/husband, who also happens to be a genius inventor. He’s proud of his latest invention, a box that can produce ice without electricity.
His wife is called “Mother” throughout the novel, depersonalized and nameless. And perhaps that is justified, as she is complicit in her husband’s insane journey from New England to the inhospitable tropics where he demands that she and their four children—all under age 13–follow. And follow is also deliberately chosen. Allie Fox is a leader and woe to anyone who disputes his directions.
This is a family version of Lord of the Flies, and I do not mean that it’s G-rated but that the Fox family becomes just as savage as those English schoolboys marooned on a desert island. Allie Fox, who left Harvard to get a “real education,” aims to depart their home on a farm in New England as he’s sure that the US is going to self-destruct. They leave almost all of their belongings and hop a banana boat to La Ceiba, Honduras, meeting on board a missionary family, the Spellgoods. Allie’s goal is to get as far away from civilization as possible, and he enlists the help of Mr. Haddy, who has a launch, to take the family to a ghost town, Jeronimo, that is covered with overgrowth. Although their tents are chewed by pacas (night rats)—which they kill and eat—eventually, they establish a decent home and outbuildings (as well as a factory for making ice!) through their own labor and the hard work of the native Zambus.
The locals call Allie “Fadder,” just one instance of the religious symbolism that abounds throughout the novel. Charlie Fox, the eldest of the four children, serves as the narrator, and when he first sees what he thinks a man—it is in actuality a scarecrow—being hoisted on a cross in a field during the first pages of the novel, it’s clear that the family—termed “the first family” by Allie—will be metaphorically establishing a new “Eden.” And, Allie has definite feelings of being godlike, just as he’s also anti-religion.
The ominous foreshadowing is pervasive. Charlie says when watching a migratory bird caught in a spider’s web, “It worried me to think that we were a little like that bird.” The mountain peaks are described threateningly as “the spike backs of monster lizards and others like molars.” On a trip to deliver ice to a distant tribe, Father looks “like a white corpse that had crawled out of the grave.”
This will be a difficult book for many. The children are often put in harm’s way, and “Mother” seems too afraid to protest. Frankly, I resisted including this title on my RoadWorks list as I knew that it would be depressing, but I finally capitulated as I also knew that it would be well written. And it is. The film version of The Mosquito Coast seems to suggest that Allie Fox descends into madness after his ice experiment fails, but it is clear in the novel that he is unbalanced from page one. I plowed through the tale as quickly as possible to get to its end as I was in a funk the entire time reading it, not necessarily conducive to a vacation. The ending is inevitable, but I was relieved to know from the dedication at the front of the book that “Charlie Fox” lived to tell the tale to Theroux.