Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (1930)

Swallows and Amazons was originally published in 1930 in the UK, but the version I read is the 1958 US edition. I never read this book as a child, or even heard of it, honestly, until Elizabeth Bird's Top 100 Children's Novels Poll in early 2010. I'm not even sure I would have been interested in the book as a child, as it was old by my standards and involved adventure, which I was staunchly against as a kid. My childhood prejudices didn't stop me from falling in love with this book as an adult, however, and I think I will be thinking about Swallows and Amazons for a long, long time to come.

The story is set in the English Lake District, where the Walker family - John, Susan, Titty, and Roger - are spending a summer holiday at a farm called Holly Howe. After receiving permission from their father, who is in the Royal Navy and away at sea, the four kids set off in their boat, Swallow, to camp on an Island in the middle of the lake. Aside from very occasional visits from their mother, and a once-daily row across the lake to fetch milk from a neighboring farm, the Walker children are completely on their own for the duration of their stay on the island. John, as captain, is in charge. Susan, the mate, takes care of the meals, and Titty and Roger, though subject to the authority of the oldest two siblings, serve as able-seaman and ship's boy. From the start of their adventure, the Walkers allow their imaginations to rule their every move, considering the adults all around them to be "natives", and the man living in the nearby houseboat to be a retired pirate. Also in on the game are the Blackett girls, Nancy and Peggy, who call themselves pirates and challenge the Swallows to a war.

What truly sets a children's book apart, in my mind, is how deeply it is able to immerse itself into the mind of a child. I have often cited Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg as one of the best children's books of all time, because it never breaks character, so to speak. There is never an all-knowing narrative voice, or an authoritative adult voice stepping in to tell the reader what's real, and what's imagined. As in real-life make-believe, the children make all the rules, and everything in the story is told from the child's point of view and nothing more. Swallows and Amazons is brilliant in exactly that way. Though the reader is in on the game from the beginning, and knows that the Walkers aren't really sea explorers anymore than the Blacketts are pirates, he or she is taken along on the adventure, and completely buys into every aspect of the Walkers' imagined lives as members of a ship's crew. Because the reader buys into the make-believe, he or she is able to experience all the excitement of an adventure on the unknown seas with the warmth and comfort of the known and the familiar.

There is something for everyone in Swallows and Amazons - adventure, camping, sailing (complete with all the jargon and sailing instruction a child could want), late-night sneak attacks, battles, enemies, and mystery. The characters, especially Roger, Titty, Nancy, and Mrs. Walker, become so real as the story continues that it becomes difficult to say goodbye to them when the book ends. It's a lucky thing there are eleven more books following this one, because once hooked, an addiction to this series would be hard for any reader to shake.

I think this book is an absolute must-read for children and adults alike. Kids as young as six or seven could probably appreciate it, if it were read aloud to them, and certainly kids in grades four to nine can read and enjoy it on their own. Arthur Ransome wrote like no other author I've ever read, but the subject matter of his books compares well to that of The Boxcar Children, The Penderwicks, Ballet Shoes, and The Saturdays.

This is without a doubt my favorite of all the books I read this year, and one of the few in my reading history that I already know I will one day read again.


  1. I have always wanted to read this, now I will make a point of it. Thanks for this fine review.

  2. What an amazing book. I didn't even notice it in Betsy' Bird's poll. Thanks for adding it to my TBR pile for that picky reader!

    1. You're so welcome, Terry! If she gets hooked, there is a whole series, and I'm working my way through reviewing them all.