Book Nostalgia: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur RansomeQuick anthology update: I was recently over at author Shay Fabbro’s blog talking about how we created the shared world for the anthology. And that’s it for promo today.

In this week’s installment of my Nostalgia series, I’m looking at the first of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books. (More to come in a future Nostalgia post!) Sailing, camping, pirates, and treasure…what’s not to love?

In case it’s been a while, here’s a quick summary to jog your memory. Swallows and Amazons features two groups of preteen siblings, each crewing a small sailboat on a large lake. The four Swallows, exploring the lake for the first time, are thrilled to be allowed to camp alone on an island…until the two Amazons arrive, and war ensues. There are night raids, an attack on a pirate houseboat, and the discovery of a treasure chest.

What unfolds is a curious mix of reality and fantasy. I’ve already blogged about how I found it difficult to accept the way the children slip seamlessly between the two levels. They know that the nearby farmers aren’t really “natives”, for example, but they’re content to think of them as a different culture…which, in a way, they are. I used to do the same thing, but I find it hard to follow now. Other characters, namely the Amazons and their Uncle Jim/Captain Flint (and, to a certain extent, the Swallows’ mother), also operate on the same fantasy level…with a suspiciously minimal amount of explanation needed to enter the children’s world.

These books were among my favourites as a child. I think what appealed to me was precisely the two levels. The Swallows really are camping and sailing and having rivalries with the Amazons, which was already quite exciting for a city kid like me. (Especially because — like the Little House books — the narrative is packed full of factual tidbits about all these things, such as how to sail or cook over a fire. I adored that sort of thing.) And then they’re pretending to be pirates and explorers and all sorts of other things that I already liked. So I could, and did, pick up either level and add it to my own imaginative play.

The characters themselves also caught my imagination. I identified strongly with Titty, the quiet bookish one, and with Nancy, the rowdy, free-willed captain of the Amazons. And of course the locations, Wild Cat Island and the lake, are so vivid that they’re almost characters themselves. (There’s a reason for that — and not just because of Arthur Ransome’s lovely illustrations. The lake is closely modelled on Windermere and Coniston Water in the Lake District of England, where Ransome used to spend his summer holidays as a child. Later in life he befriended a family of four children, the Altounyans, three of whom share names with the Swallows….)

What threw me out of the book this time around, besides the make-believe, was the amount of freedom and responsibility the children have. John, the eldest of the Swallows, is perhaps 12 at most; young Roger is 7. Yet they’re allowed to sail and camp alone on an island, even though Roger can’t swim — his siblings teach him how over the course of the book. The second oldest, Susan, does all the cooking. The third one, Titty, bandages Roger’s knee when he slips on some rocks.

Rereading as an adult, I can see that they’re not exactly left alone — they get milk every morning from a farm that’s next to where their mother is staying, and she comes to visit them every few days. Adults are, in fact, keeping tabs on the children…they’re just doing it from a greater distance than would be acceptable today.

I also have to admit, sadly, that the book has a certain amount of outdated racial and class attitudes. It’s not that the children are anti-anybody, exactly. They’re polite to the farmers and charcoal-burners; everyone just acknowledges that they’re from a different class. And they make some cringe-inducing comments about natives and savages. Of course, all of that went over my head the first ten times I read it.

Verdict: Use caution if you’re thinking of picking up Swallows and Amazons for a reread. What makes it so magical for a child is exactly what makes it difficult to read as an adult. Better, then, to hand it to a child in your life and let them sail away….

Are you (or were you) a Swallows and Amazons fan? Have you tried rereading as an adult? What did you love about the first book?


3 responses to “Book Nostalgia: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

  1. I’m reading SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS to my older two these days. 🙂 Yes, I’m noticing the roughness and the repetition of the writing more. Yes, the “explorers and natives” terminology is a little cringe-inducing. But it’s still a magical book, and my children enjoy it because of the same reasons I did: in a sheltered, helicopter-parenting world, the Swallows get to take on adult responsibility–camp on an island by themselves, go sailing, use knives and build fires–while still living a fantasy life.

    I forget which sequel it was, but my favorite Swallows endeavor was when they minded copper. Mined. Copper.

    Seriously awesome.

  2. Pigeon Post! That’s one of my favourites, too. If I had to choose, I think it would come down to either Swallowdale or Winter Holiday. Or maybe Secret Water…drat. 😉

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear you’re passing on the love to the next generation!

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