Sunday, June 2, 2013

Book Review: Missee Lee by Arthur Ransome (1941)

Missee Lee is the tenth book in the Swallows and Amazons series, and like Peter Duck, it is a deviation from the normal progression of the series. Whereas most of the time, Ransome’s characters have real-world adventures, this story is based on their imaginings about sailing to China. In this story, Captain Flint takes Nancy, Peggy, John, Susan, Titty, and Roger with him in the Wild Cat on a voyage around the world. Gibber the monkey accidentally sets the ship on fire, and when they finally escape in Swallow and Amazon, Captain Flint and his crew mistakenly wash up on the shore among Chinese pirates who inhabit the Three Islands. Captain Flint is immediately held for ransom, and the kids are also treated as prisoners. It is only when Miss Lee, the most powerful taicoon on the Three Islands, takes them in as her students that they see any hope of ever escaping and making it home to England once more.

As I mentioned in my Peter Duck review a little over a year ago, I find it jarring to read these stories that don’t actually take place within the overall arc of the entire Swallows and Amazons series. I am not good at suspending my disbelief, and I am not fond of the adventure genre once it ventures beyond the boundaries of the characters’ own backyards. That said, though, I enjoyed Missee Lee more than Peter Duck, and I found it easier to get lost in the world of the story.

Obviously, there are some issues with outdated and offensive portrayals of Chinese culture in this book, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them. The characters in the story - and especially Miss Lee herself - speak in stereotypical broken English, where the “L” sound is substituted for every “R.” The portrayal of Chinese culture in general also demonstrates a lack of understanding of Chinese society - which is probably an accurate representation of how English children might have viewed China in the early 1940s. Despite these problems, though, I was surprised to find that the overall story is much more progressive than I’d imagined. The most powerful character in the entire book is a female pirate, and she is not only revered and feared by her people, but she is also really smart, well-read and much more sensitive to the plight of her prisoners than either of the leaders of the other two islands. I thought it was very telling that the Walkers and Blacketts, as the authors of the story, would make this sort of character the heroine, and I liked that Ransome incorporated references to school and British life that would easily have come to the minds of the characters as they were inventing the tale of Missee Lee. In Peter Duck, I felt as though I didn’t know the characters quite well enough to have fun imagining them in new and far-off places. This time, the characters felt like old friends and I got a kick out of seeing Captain Flint caged like a monkey and Roger rising to the head of the Latin class in Miss Lee’s makeshift school.

Missee Lee was an enjoyable escapist read, and I don’t recommend skipping it if you’re reading the entire series. I think it is easier to appreciate the story if you’ve read at least a few titles about these characters beforehand, but even the uninitiated will enjoy all the excitement, suspense, and action of this satisfying and fun read.

1 comment:

  1. Thnks for this honest review. I read a lot of books from the early 1940s and find a lot of stereotypical characters and offensive portrayals of characters. I also feel it is good to see where we come from and where we are now as far as that is concerned. It makes a good case for helping kids become more sensitive towards others and opening up all kinds of discussions,