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Paperback – 6 Sep 2001
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Arthur Ransome was a prolific writer of children's books. Born in Leeds in 1884, it was his father, a nature-loving history professor, who inspired his love of the outdoors and nurtured a passion for fishing. As a child he enjoyed active, outdoor holidays: sailing, camping and exploring the countryside. He used many of these holiday settings for his children's stories, notably the much loved Swallows and Amazons, a book that sits comfortably in the category of "timeless classic" and remains one of his most popular titles for young people.
It is the wholesome story of four young children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, who set out in their boat (the Swallow of the title) to an island of adventure. All seems well until they encounter their enemy. At first they are angry at the invasion of their peaceful haven by these Amazon pirates, Nancy and Peggy, who claim ownership of the land. But in time a truce is called and the Swallows and Amazons become firm friends. Camping under open skies, swimming in clear water, fishing, exploring and making discoveries is the stuff of dreams which serves to make this so charming a tale. The author manages to capture the innocence of a time when all this was real and possible. Swallows and Amazons will transport children to a fantastical place where they can play safely and roam freely, without an adult in sight.
"I absolutely loved this book as a boy…. The simple line drawings were just wonderful; they gave the feeling of wide open spaces and freedom." (Tony Ross)
"My childhood simply would not have been the same without this book. It created a whole world to explore, one that lasted long in the imagination after the final page had been read" (Markus Sedgwick)
"All the thrills of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe" (Daily Telegraph)
"The very stuff of play" (The Guardian)
"Thrilling not only to young readers fond of the sea, but also to older readers who remember how they enjoyed sea stories when they themselves were young" (Scotsman)
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The story tells of the crew of the Swallow, 4 children visiting the Lake District on a summer holiday. In front of them lies a lake to explore and enjoy. The children's father is overseas on a naval trip so the family have boating in their blood. The 4 draw on their knowledge of exciting places far away to name the locations, adding more glamour to their spots on the lake. These places are generally pretty well-known with perhaps the exception being the Peak of Darien which is unlikely to be known by a modern young reader or listener.
Darien is far from the only challenging description in the book. There are so many nautical terms which are all used correctly but which just are not part of common parlance any more. Ransome writes for a readership perhaps more suited to tales of adventure on the high seas where young people might have aspired to glorious sailing expeditions. Nowadays that is a pretty niche area and so nearly 90 years after original publication, the gap between the narrator and the reader has grown tremendously.
Indeed there is a sense that the world of Swallows and Amazons has disappeared somewhat in the intervening period. The prospect of young children being allowed to camp out by themselves on a small island in the middle of a lake harks to a golden era of childhood that few now living will have been part of. Perhaps in a way this is the glory of the tale in that it describes what childhood should be like more than what it actually represents.
The adventures the children have are nicely couched. They are not too scary for a young audience but carry some excitement. The side expedition into a gypsy camp is fascinating and the battle with Captain Flint is wonderful to read as is the exciting way Titty takes on the Amazon.
The Amazons are a surprisingly modern rendition of girls. The two girls who crew the Amazon are just as brave and adventurous as any of the boys in the story, perhaps even more so. The Amazons are a fun foil for the Swallows in that they have similar aspirations and worldviews but have the added advantage of knowing the area much better.
The relationship between the children is heavily hierarchical in that the younger ones follow the orders of the older ones. The gender roles are interesting though because the most assertive characters are probably the Swallows and Titty rather than the boys. Indeed the only characters who are treated as less capable are the baby who does not join the adventure and the youngest boy Roger.
The distinction the characters make between "natives" and the shipmates is excellent even if it has colonial overtones. In a childhood adventure, those who are not part of the group are most definitely the other and that extends to members of the crew's family and friends.
While it is definitely a classic and a great yarn filled with childhood adventure, the writing of Swallows and Amazons is pretty tough going. The actions are detailed intricately. This slows the pace down greatly and means not much happens for long periods of time. Ransome labours heavily through the work with far too many words explaining what are often pretty throwaway things. There are benefits to this approach in teaching some of the theory behind the way things work but that is not the same as being exciting and is not really how children learn best most of the time.
Equally the book is not especially attractive. The cover of the 2012 edition is pretty ugly. The interior sketches are at best skeletal and worst terrible.
Overall, Swallows and Amazons is a dense book that over-describes its detail but at heart holds within it the glory of what childhood is supposed to be. There is a good reason this is considered a classic and it is the kind of gentle adventure a young reader or audience can enjoy without trouble. At over 500 pages of pretty dense text though it is a heavy read and at times not the easiest to get through.
There is not really a plot. The action is centred on the 'conquest' of Kanchenjunga (the Himalayas were a big focus for expeditions at the time when Ransome wrote this -- 1931), a sprained ankle, hurried meetings between the Swallows and the Amazons and a race at the end after the successful repair of the Swallow.
Along the way, however, we meet a few rustic characters -- the charcoal-burners and some members of the Swainson family. Ransome, while he reproduces the manner in which they speak, in no way paints them as yokels but as sympathetic characters in their own right. And this is one of his many strengths as a writer and as a human being.
I like Ransome's ability to capture what it is like to be young and to portray this in the spectacular scenery of the Lake District. Most of all, I admire his skill, which he has in common with authors such as E Nesbit and Kenneth Grahame, in being able to write for all children between the ages of 7 and 90 without ever once talking down to them.
As for youngsters messing about in boats and 'wild camping': it is a great shame that it cannot happen so freely these days. Mrs Walker and Mrs Blackett would no doubt be prosecuted by the social services, who would not only get hold of the wrong end of the stick, but it would be the wrong stick entirely.
Of course, life is very different now from when Arthur Ransome wrote this classic story, and Mrs Walker would find herself castigated, and probably even prosecuted, for neglect if she were to allow her four children, aged presumably between seven and eleven, to going camping and sailing, wholly unaccompanied; the children themselves would probably be taken into care. The only vague concession to health and safety is Mrs Walker’s ruling that Roger is not allowed to carry or use matches. The book was first published in 1930, and was probably already eulogising a Corinthian past largely of Ransome’s own imagining.
Ransome’s own imagining is pretty powerful though. He succeeds in creating six child characters, all of whom have clearly contrasting personalities, and he captures their perspective of the world with great clarity. He also pulls off the harder trick of writing adults who meld into the children’s world seamlessly. At the risk of sinking into technicality, he is also a master of metafiction. The children themselves all have marvellous imaginations, recasting the Cumbrian lake into a new world waiting to be explored, reassigning all the local features with names drawn from maritime history. Perhaps he overendows the children in this way – given their ages, it seems amazing that they have heard of half the places or books that they talk about so readily. This, however, could not matter less, and it merely adds to the reader’s sense of complete immersion in the fantasy world that Ransome has created.
Most importantly, though, it is simply a rattling good story that resonates with the joy of unfettered imagination
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