Pirates, natives (adults), exploration, tension, treasure, scary moments, sailing, camping, humiliation, exhilaration, excitement, conflict, peace-making, new enemies, new friends and above all – childhood independence.
In Swallows and Amazons the protagonists inhabit two worlds. In the first they are four family members (aged 7-14) bound by the usual frustrations that siblings would have on holiday in the Lake District with their mother and baby sister. As sailors the children refer to each other as Captain John, Mate Susan, Able Seaman Titty and the Boy Roger. Sailing on Coniston Water in the English Lake District (which they simply call the Sea) they meet up with the Blackett girls, Ruth and Peggy. The girls see themselves as pirates and call themselves the Amazons. Their uncle Jim (alias Captain Flint) says that pirates are ruthless. So Ruth goes as Captain Nancy, and her sister is Mate Peggy. The Walkers discover Swallow, a small sailing dingy ocean-going schooner in which they sail on to Wild Cat Island and set up base camp, where lemonade becomes Grog and corned beef transforms into Pemmican.
With their island base established, the adventures can begin, in quick succession – the sorts of adventures I longed for as a child. On Wildcat Island children can camp, swim, fish cook and explore far from all adult eyes (actually the adults do keep a careful, if distant, eye out for them).
Given that the book was published before WWII, it has aged very kindly. Arthur Ransome’s conversational style, though a little archaic, doesn’t feel like a dated old black and white film. Yes, all relationships remain completely platonic, when I suspect a modern version would have had the hint at least of something going on between John and Nancy. But, sibling rivalry and enemy turned ally relationships among the children, are superbly captured by Ransome. Considering the era, there is a lot of gender equality too. The book is wholesome, innocent and simple, no longer very PC, but I challenge a young reader to read this book and not be begging his/her mother for a dinghy and sailing lessons and secretly dreaming of his/her own island adventure. I think Wildcat Island can offer a viable alternative to Hogwarts any day!
I found some contemporary reviews for you here: http://www.allthingsransome.net/literary/rev_sa.htm
My enduring fascination with island life was birthed in these 400 pages, aged 9. My grandparents lived in the Lake District, which of course only stimulated my interest more for a book set in and around Coniston Water and Lake Windermere. It wasn’t until I was 17, I think, and had gone up climbing in the Lakes with a boyfriend, that I fulfilled my childhood dream of visiting the island. Peel Island is considered to be the original of the fictional Wild Cat Island. Taqui Altounyan, sister of Roger Altounyan and inspiration for one of the characters in Swallows and Amazons, described Peel Island in her semi-biographical novel In Aleppo Once as “like a green tuffet, sitting in the water, the trees covering the rocks”. The campsite, the secret harbor, Octopus Lagoon can all be explored and fuel further a child’s imagination. From Robinson Crueso to Anne of the Island, I have been reading Island stories ever since!
So tell me where have you been or what have you visited because of a book you have read?