Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review: Coot Club by Arthur Ransome (1934)

Coot Club is a story in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, but it’s the first one so far not to include a single Swallow or Amazon. This time, the only familiar characters are Dick and Dorothea Callum, first introduced as new friends of the Walkers and Blacketts in Winter Holiday. They are spending their Easter holidays with their mother’s former teacher, Mrs. Barrable, who lives in a boat called the Teasel on a river in Norfolk. Mrs. Barrable has a neighbor named Tom, who is a member of the coot club, devoted to the protection of coots and other birds nesting along the river. Tom’s friends and allies include twin girls, experienced sailors nicknamed Port and Starboard, and the Death and Glories, three rough-and-tumble little boys with a boat of their own. Though Mrs. Barrable expects to spend her holidays painting on a stationary Teasel, she soon finds herself on a sailing adventure, as Tom escapes some tourists he has upset, and Dick and Dorothea finally have a chance to prove themselves as real sailors.

Of all the Ransome books I’ve reviewed so far, this one is the hardest to summarize. So much happens, and there are just so many characters. That’s the remarkable thing about Ransome’s writing that I don’t think I have mentioned yet in my reviews - the sheer number of characters and Ransome’s ability to manage them all. The cast grows with each new story, but every personality is fresh and new, and I never have trouble keeping track of who is who. Not only that, but the characters are described so well, each of them seems almost like a real person, and I still think about the characters long after finishing each book. In this book, the reader really comes to sympathize with Tom, who goes to great lengths to escape the hullabaloos, the rude visitors whom Tom has so angered, and to love Mrs. Barrable, who, like Captain Flint, is more like a child than an adult.

The story itself is exciting because it involves a true sailing trip, more similar to the imagined voyage of Peter Duck than to the short day excursions the Swallows and Amazons make in the other books. Kids become armchair travelers as they read, learning about the wildlife, bridges, and geography of the Norfolk Broads, while also adding some new sailing terminology to their vocabularies and worrying about the hullabaloos. It was also interesting to see the differences in Tom and his friends’ approach to sailing as compared with the approach of the Walkers or Blacketts. The Swallows and Amazons do a lot more pretending than do the Coots, but both groups are wary of adult involvement, and both have enemies real and imagined.

As always, the writing in this book is impeccable, and though I missed my beloved Walkers and Blacketts, it didn’t take long for me to delve into this new segment of Ransome’s world which he so carefully and wonderfully describes. I don’t know who is in the rest of the books in the second half of the series, but after finishing Coot Club, I know I wouldn’t mind running into any of its characters again.

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