on 10 April 2001
After the excitement of "We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea", Arthur Ransome's eighth story in the Swallows and Amazons series returns to more comfortable and comforting territory. Set very shortly after the children's ordeal at sea in the previous volume, "Secret Water" finds the Walker children "marooned" on an island in the tidal area of Hamford Water, Essex. Here they spend a week or so, camping and surveying the low-lying islands, tortuous channels and tidal flats, whilst also having to deal with the quandary of whether to make friends with (or wage war upon) the local savage tribesmen. Once, of course, the small matter of one of their number being taken for a human sacrifice has been resolved!
This story is something of an attempt to return to the simple style of tale that worked so well with both "Swallows and Amazons" and "Swallowdale": a tale of children building a world of their own creation while at the same time learning to deal successfully with the real world in which they find themselves. After some of the more exciting later volumes in the S&A series, though, some readers may find the results just a little flat.
As always, though, Ransome weaves his tale through the deftest handling of prose and most adults at least should find this tale as charming as any the others in the series. It is nice, too, to see that the young Bridget is now able to start participating in the activities of her siblings.
on 5 January 2008
This is the third book of the central trilogy of masterpieces by Arthur Ransome, following on from Pigeon Post and We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea. It contains the essence of Ransome's successful formula: believable situations where the characterisation and plot lines wonderfully create a magical yet realistic story. (Although Peter Duck and Missee Lee are enjoyable and read well as pure adventure books, I always felt that they suffered in comparison to the others because the situations were unlikely).
In Secret Water Ransome creates an inland tidal backwater where the Walkers and Blacketts explore and map uncharted territory, aided and abetted by native guides and savages. Once again, the situations are artfully described and any child (of any age!) who has ever enjoyed exploring new surroundings will be sucked into this world. The book is wonderfully illustrated with Ransome's characteristic line drawings and maps, which add to the pleasure.
These books describe a (possibly mythical) more innocent time, an age where communication was by operator phones and telegrams, where mass tourism hadn't reached all areas and where children could be left alone in safety. Despite this, children will recognise themselves in the characters and wish, as I still do, to be there sharing their adventures.
on 13 September 2008
Having read a few Arthur Ransome books as a child, I was moved to read this one having recently visited the waters where it is set. The book is charming in the style of the earlier books in the canon - you might enjoy the charmingly dated dialogue of the children, the detail of the nautical terms and observations, and revisiting the characters. However be warned - nothing really happens, and although the tides may run strongly through the secret water, there is not much of a narrative current to sweep you through this tale. I did enjoy it, having been there last month, but otherwise this is one best read in the sun, by the water, with the gulls calling in the background.
on 31 October 2014
Maps, mud and eels, and a human sacrifice
(Some of the general comments I made about Ransome and the Swallows and Amazons series in my review of Winter Holiday may also be of interest.)
To get the full flavour of the book go to Google Maps UK, type in Hamford Water, switch to Google Earth, and compare what you see with the completed map in Secret Water. Allowing for 75+ years of change in the coastal regions of Essex, the fit is perfect. If you crank up the magnification you will even see names that ought to have been adopted by Ransome, like the Dardanelles and the Twizzle, and one that almost was, Peewit Island has become Peewitland.
This is another excellent example of the value of absent parents. Just before a planned family holiday Commander Walker (who is rarely even in the country!) is summoned to London, so dumps the children plus a dinghy in an area of tidal salt marshes and low islands on the Essex coast, and suggests they survey and map the area. Given the overwhelming respect, almost veneration, that the Swallows have for both parents, they naturally fall to with enthusiasm. Fortunately the surveying process is enlivened then interrupted first by the unexpected arrival of their dearest friends, and then by a new band of outlaws known as the Eels. Adventures ensue, as they will. But keep your eye on the map, which in my second-hand hardback version is conveniently printed inside the front and back covers over a double page and with coloured route lines. Also keep an eye on the latest addition to the Swallows, Bridget.
In this book Ransome introduces four new characters, and promotes the ‘ship’s baby’, Bridget, to junior but active membership of the Swallows. This is the second time that we get twins (the first was in Coot Club, in which all the characters were new except Dick and Dorothea, whom we met in Winter Holiday), but this time the author seems to make even less attempt to distinguish between them, and I confess I gave up. But the leader, thanks to his original ‘home’ and his ‘splatchers’ is very clearly drawn. All of them, naturally, are excellent sailors and possess quite as much imagination as the Swallows.
Many elements are common to the earlier books, though set in a totally new environment, which is expertly and fully evoked, as it always is with Ransome, from personal experience. The children’s relations with adults, the ‘natives’, are as guarded as ever, though they do need the help of a craftsman at one point – plus, of course, the inevitable and frequent calls upon a local farmer’s wife for milk. The technical detail this time has less to do with sailing than with mapping, but the action of the tides on their temporary world of salt marshes and low-lying islands is of prime importance. In fact the tides dictate much of their scope for action, and prove to be life-threatening on one occasion.
The characters of the Swallows and Amazons run true to form, and now that Susan has a new ‘baby’ to look after she is even more maternal and ‘native’ than ever. John, as always, is preoccupied with what he ought to be doing, what his father in particular would want and expect him to do, which sometimes conflicts with his sense of adventure. Titty is still the one with bags of curiosity and imagination, and Roger thinks mostly about food. We are never told how old the children are, which is inevitable since the stories involve the same children published over a span of 17 years. But Bridget has now become ‘old enough’, as she often reminds the others, to camp with her siblings and share their adventures – she’s even at the very centre of the culmination of the inevitable ‘war’ between the Swallows and the rest.
There is enough that is familiar and enough that is new in Secret Water to satisfy established Ransome readers, but enjoyment does not depend on previous knowledge, it is an excellent book in its own right.