Sunday, October 6, 2013

Book Review: The Picts and the Martyrs by Arthur Ransome (1943)

Dick and Dorothea have just arrived for a visit at Beckfoot with Nancy and Peggy when the unthinkable happens. Nancy and Peggy’s Great Aunt Maria turns up, determined to look after the Blackett girls while their mother is away. To avoid upsetting the Great Aunt, Dick and Dorothea hide themselves away in a nearby shed, calling themselves “picts” and keeping out of sight. In the meantime, Nancy implicates many adults in her plot to keep the visitors secret including Cook, the mailman, and Timothy.

The absence of the Swallows for the entire story was a disappointment for me in this book, as it is the second to last in the series, and I only have one more chance to spend any time with those characters. My personal feelings aside, though, I really appreciate that Ransome chose to explore a different dynamic in this story. I like the way he pairs the two quietest and least troublesome characters, Dick and Dorothea, with the wild, opinionated Amazon pirates, and forces them to conspire to keep a secret. I really enjoyed seeing how seriously Dick and Dorothea took their role as picts, and it made me laugh to see the usually mouthy Nancy behaving herself primly for the benefit of the great aunt. This book provides a lot of insight into the unlikely friendship between these two pairs of kids and gives Dick and Dorothea the opportunity to be something more than resident nerds.

There is less sailing in this book than in many of the others, which I also saw as a plus because it provides more room for character development. Since the reader spends most of the story with the D’s, these two characters come much more strongly to life than in other books where all the characters are present. The lack of a sailing-oriented plot also provides other opportunities for adventure, including a late-night break-in at Beckfoot and an all-out manhunt when the great aunt eventually goes missing. There were many wonderfully suspenseful moments that kept me on the edge of my seat as my husband read the book aloud to me, and many chapters where I groaned as I realized I’d be left waiting to find out what happened until the next day.

The Picts and the Martyrs ranks high on my list of favorites in the Swallows and Amazons series, right beside Winter Holiday. Though I will be sad to finish the series, I’m glad to have one more book to go - Great Northern?

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