Swallows and Amazons: Arthur Ransome
July 12, 2006
I've had a used copy of Swallows and Amazons on my bookshelf for quite some time. It's a classic British children's book, and I always intended to read it. Then Nancy the Pirate from Swallows and Amazons was nominated to my Cool Girls list, and I bumped the book up on my to read list. And, since it was (sort of) about pirates, it seemed fitting to take the book along on my Caribbean vacation last week.
Swallows and Amazons is an old fashioned story about a family spending summer vacation in a lakeside house, while their father is away on a military ship in Malta. The four older children of the family (there's also a baby sister, plus mother and nurse) are given permission to spend a large chunk of the vacation camped out on an island in the lake, sailing to the island in their small sailboat, the Swallow.
The four Walker children (Captain John, Mate Susan, Able-seaman Titty, and boy Roger) enjoy preparing provisions for their sojourn on the island, finding a camping spot, and finding a secret harbor for their boat. They embark on sailing trips of exploration in the large lake and surrounding rivers. They cook their own food, fish, and bathe in the lake (though they also sail to a local farm every day for fresh milk and other provisions).
Soon the Walker children encounter rivals, the pirates Nancy and Peggy Blackett, owners of the sailboat Amazon. The children agree to a contest to see who can steal the other's boat, resulting in careful plotting and dangerous late-night sails. The kids also band together as another rival, a retired pirate living in a houseboat, appears. Their adventures include unmasking burglars, defending themselves from false accusations, and finding treasure.
There are a lot of things to like about this book, and I can see why it remains a classic 75 years after publication. The children are all well-developed, and their interactions with one another seem realistic. The adventures that they have are fun, without straining credibility. They have a knack for turning everything into an adventure (speaking in pirate and/or sailing lingo, for example). And Captain Nancy is definitely a cool girl of children's literature, brave and not at all bound by gender stereotypes.
I especially like the character of the Walker children's mother. She instantly participates in any fancies that the children initiate. There's a scene in which Titty greets her mother with "Hullo, Man Friday", and the mother doesn't miss a beat, responding immediately "Hullo, Robinson Crusoe." Mother also backs up the children when their motives are questioned by outsiders, and ensures that they have adequate provisions, while giving them plenty of independence. She's also able to tell them real-life stories of her own adventures from before her marriage, pretty impressive for a 1930's matron.
In general, the independence granted to these kids is a wonderful thing. At the very beginning of the book, they receive written permission from the father to embark on their camping adventure. He writes (in a telegram): "Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers won't drown." In other words, I'd rather have my kids drown than be duffers (losers who can't fend for themselves on a sailboat and an island), but as long as they aren't losers, they'll be ok. This would never fly in a book today, four young kids camping out an island on their own, but it's nice to experience it through Swallows and Amazons. The children's overnight sailing adventure is particularly impressive - you'll have to read the book for details.
I will confess that although I enjoyed Swallows and Amazons, I did find it a little bit slow-paced, compared with other, newer books that I've been reading. There's a bunch of detail about how to sail, and how to care for a sailing vessel, that I could personally have lived without. I think that I might have felt differently if I had read this book initially as a child, because then I would have been re-visiting an old favorite. And I can definitely see the nostalgic appeal that it has for people, with its portrayal of a simpler time, a time when it was safe for kids to have adventures on their own. I'm glad that I read the book, so that I know what it's all about, but I have no pressing need to go and read the other books in the series. There's an Arthur Ransome / Swallows and Amazons website here, for anyone who would like more information about the other books.
Book: Swallows and Amazons
Author: Arthur Ransome
Publisher: Puffin Books
Original Publication Date: 1930
Age Range: 9-12
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.