Swallowdale is one of the least well known of the dozen Swallows and Amazons books but it deserves its place high up in the canon. I first read it nearly 50 years ago and I returned to it having read Arthur Ransome and Capt Flint's Trunk this January.
On only their second visit to the lake, John, Susan, Titty and Roger wreck their dinghy Swallow and have to swim ashore. Deprived of the opportunity to camp on Wild Cat Island and desperate not to ruin their holiday they camp ashore in Swallowdale. Meanwhile the crew of the Amazon, Nancy and Peggy, are also out of action because their Great Aunt has come to visit and they have to become Ruth and Margaret and wear frilly dresses and recite poetry and be on time to meals. But new adventures always beckon: they climb Kanchenjunga, get lost in fog and race Amazon against the mended Swallow.
As a kid all I wanted was the adventure: other children allowed to camp and sail and climb by themselves. But as an adult I can appreciate the brilliance of the writing. Ransome describes sailing and the countryside perfectly. Every character is carefully drawn: Captain John who feels the shame of having lost his ship, Mate Susan who worries about meals and bedtimes, romancer Able Seaman Titty who fantasises about a character called Peter Duck (eponymous hero of another S&A book), and irresponsible but irrepressible Ship's Boy Roger who always gets himself into a scrape (literally on the Knickerbockerbreaker). Amazon pirate Nancy has a fine range of expressions and only Peggy is underdrawn. Although the adults are mostly bit parts there are deft touches. Mother remembers her childhood in Australia and can therefore put her worries about their safety into perspective. The perfect example of 'show don't tell' is the woodman: the adult reader deduces the relationship between him and Mary Swainson but the author scarcely hints at it. And the Great Aunt is the most wonderful plot device: a tyrant who poses the impediment that makes the story come alive (and who reappears in The Picts and the Martyrs later in the series).
And on the top of Kanchenjunga, in the flush of their success, Roger discovers a biscuit tin in a stone cairn. In it is a label: "August the 2nd 1901. We climbed the Matterhorn. Molly Turner. J Turner. Bob Blackett. 'That's mother and Uncle Jim,' said Peggy in a queer voice. 'Who is Bob Blackett?' asked Susan. 'He was father,' said Nancy. Nobody said anything for a minute..."
Suddenly the mood changes. Triumph becomes sad thoughtfulness. A children's adventure story acquires depth. This is what makes Ransome such a superb story-teller.
Brilliant. April 2013; 441 pages.
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57