Saturday, August 16, 2008

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome is a delightful story about the children of an English family and their sailing adventures. Set in the interwar period, the story is suffused with an innocent charm that would be impossible after the beginning of WWII. With their little dinghy, Swallow, the four Walker children explore the lake where they are vacationing. Having received permission to camp out on a small island, they embark on an expedition as explorers (armed with the references to cannibalism that seem obligatory in literature about British children who fancy themselves explorers*). The grown-ups who live on shore become the "natives", and the charcoal-burners in the forest become (appropriately, in a way) the "savages". The Walker children soon encounter a pair of self-styled pirates, the Blackett girls, who are ruthless in a friendly sort of way. There ensues a competition to capture the other side's boat and attain flagship status. Explorers and pirates join forces against the Blackett girls' uncle, a friendly pirate gone sour. When they are witness to a burglary, the children become embroiled in "native" affairs and end up saving the day. The book is refreshingly free of mean-spiritedness and small-mindedness. It is a delight to follow the children's colorful imaginations as they transform corned beef into pemmican, lemonade into grog, pikes into sharks, and themselves into explorers and pirates. The book should evoke nostalgia in anyone whose childhood games were shaped by strong imaginations, whether they be seasoned sailors or landlubbers.

This book is the first in a series of twelve books by Arthur Ransome, originally published in 1930.

* See p.136 of the 1985 Godine edition. "'This is where the savages have had a corroboree,' said Titty. 'They cooked their prisoners on the fire and danced round them.' 'Yelling like mad,' said Roger."

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