Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Review: Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome (1931)

In this second book in the series, a year has passed since Swallows and Amazons, and the Walker children have returned to the Lake District for the summer holiday, excited to sail in Swallow, camp on Wildcat Island, and fight more wars with the Amazon pirates, Nancy and Peggy Blackett. There are some changes this year, though. For one thing, their younger sister Vicky has stopped resembling Queen Victoria, for whom she was nicknamed, and is now called Bridget. The family has also acquired a monkey, though he has not joined them on this trip, and a parrot, named Polly, who will serve as the ship’s parrot. They have also invented an imaginary explorer named Peter Duck, about whom Titty tells many exciting stories. What they are not prepared for, however, are the unexpected changes that impact their summer fun. The Blacketts have their great aunt staying with them, and she keeps the girls on such short leashes, they can hardly have any fun or free time at all. Then the Swallow suffers an unfortunate shipwreck, and the Swallows find themselves marooned on dry land while it gets fixed. But the Walker children are true explorers, and it doesn’t take long for them to settle a new camp, which they name Swallowdale, and to set out on a whole new set of adventures, including an ascent up the peak they call Kanchenjunga.

The first book in this series is so utterly brilliant, it would be impossible to top, but this sequel comes very close. Though at times early in the story Ransome’s thoughts seem somewhat disorganized, and his descriptions repetitive and lengthy, the story hardly suffers at all from these shortcomings. Rather, Ransome does a very good job of managing many story threads, and of breathing fresh life into the setting so thoroughly explored by Swallows and Amazons. I love the plotting of the story. Obviously, a new story in a familiar setting requires some changes, or the writing grows stale, but the way he chose to bring about those changes fits seamlessly into the overall narrative arc of the story and provides its own exciting shipwreck scene. Throughout the book, Ransome propels the story forward with one realistic and believable conflict after another, always resolving them happily but not without some anxiety on the part of characters and readers alike.

The characters also have a lot of room to grow during this story. Not only do we see a prim and proper side of the usually wild Blackett girls, we also see Roger beginning to mature and developing some exciting storylines of his own. Susan, too, develops beyond her role as mate, especially when she takes up native concerns on the behalf of her mother or another adult. The differences between outspoken and daring Nancy and the more cautious Swallows is also much more apparent in this book, and made me really consider how their friendship works, and why. I also thought the adult characters came to life much more strongly in this second book. Mrs. Walker and Captain Flint, in particular, developed personalities as people, not just as authority figures or family members.

This book, like its predecessor, empowers children to use their imaginations and explores the possibilities of a world where children can roam independently and look after themselves for certain lengths of time. Contemporary kids - especially in my urban community - probably haven’t done anything close to what John, Susan, Titty, and Roger do in these books, but I think every kid understands the desire for independence and relates to the power and enjoyment of imaginative play. These books appeal to all kids because they speak to their fundamental understanding of the world, and speak to their interests and concerns, instead of to the messages, lessons, and morals of adults.

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