Monday, January 28, 2013

Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Swallows and Amazons mixes childhood imagination with literary realism to create a pleasantly dreamy remembrance of holidays past. 

English author Arthur Ransome’s children’s classic Swallows and Amazons reads like a long love letter to the Lake District where the novel is set and a dreamy reminisce of the summer he spent teaching a group of children to sail.

The pace is slow and languorous, like an afternoon spent bobbing pleasantly about in the calm waters of a serene lake. Ransome describes everything in careful detail, creating a gentle yet imaginatively busy fictional world. On the one hand we know that the nautical fantasy Ransome’s young characters have created for themselves is temporal and dependent on adult patronage, yet the novel’s great charm is to draw you convincingly into this world. When the adult characters do make their appearance from time to time, it comes as a bit of a shock, like waking abruptly out of a pleasant dream.

The plot is simple enough. The four Walker siblings – John, Susan, Titty and Roger – are holidaying at Holly Howe farm with their mother and baby sister, Vicky. They borrow a dinghy, the Swallow, and set out sailing on the surrounding lake to capture a small island as part of their adventures of conquest.

Once they have set up camp on the island, there is evidence of other inhabitants. Soon all is revealed. A rival team of sailors, the Amazons, have also laid claim to the island. The Amazons are two girls, the formidable Captain Nancy and her first mate Peggy. The two groups do a fair bit of preliminary jousting, form an alliance, and then enjoy a series of adventures, one involving the Amazon’s Uncle Jim (also known as Captain Flint) and his stolen manuscript.

Alas, all these adventures soon come to an abrupt end when the Walkers must end their holiday. The delightful season of play, games, imagination and acquiring of nautical skills must give way to dull reality. The only thing that sustains the Walker children is imagining all the fun they can have on their next summer holiday, when they will return to the lakes.

The power of this classic is its ability to slowly transport the reader to the fantasy world of children’s play and adventure. It’s a great pleasure to get slowly absorbed into this dreamy world of summers and holidays past.

Recommended age: 8 upwards

Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome. Published by Vintage Classics. ISBN: 9780099572794   RRP: $9.95