Sunday, April 20, 2014

Book Review: Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome (1947)

Great Northern? is the twelfth and final book in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. Once again, the Walkers (John, Susan, Titty, and Roger), the Callums (Dorothea and Dick), and the Blacketts (Nancy and Peggy) all come together for an exciting adventure filled with dangers real and imagined. Captain Flint has taken all three sets of explorers on a trip on a borrowed boat, the Sea Bear, which is just about ready to be returned when Dick makes a startling discovery on a Scottish loch. He observes two birds which he is sure must be Great Northern Divers watching over a nest. This would not be unusual except that Great Northern Divers have never been known to nest in Great Britain before. Wanting to be sure of his discovery, Dick consults with a bird expert whose own sailing voyage crosses paths with the Sea Bear, but he quickly realizes this is a mistake, as the man is not just a bird expert, but an egg collector who wishes to kill the birds, take their eggs, and put them all on in display in a museum. From the time Dick and his friends realize the danger the birds are in, they put all other plans on hold and work to help save the birds and to help Dick gather the evidence he needs to prove their newly discovered nesting habits. In the meantime, the entire group also clashes with Scottish natives who believe the explorers are in their country to drive away deer.

This book, like many others in the series, shows off Arthur Ransome’s ability to make almost anything into an adventure. Dick Callum, who becomes the central protagonist of this story, is hardly the typical literary hero. In earlier books, he has always gone along with the others on their adventures, but as a nerdy birdwatcher, his role has mainly been to bore the likes of Nancy and Roger with his interest in nature. He has a bit of a chance to shine when he links up with Tom Dudgeon and other members of the Coot Club, but even then, he is a secondary character and not the center of the action. In Great Northern?, though, Dick has his chance to take center stage. Ransome creates a perfectly believable situation in which, for the first time, Dick is in charge and the group rallies around one of his causes. Without recreating Dick’s personality, and indeed while celebrating his nerdy special interest in birds, Ransome makes him the hero of his own story. Kids who are themselves not the adventurous type will undoubtedly see themselves in Dick and rejoice in the fact that a kid like them has the chance to save the day for a change.

Another character who really comes to life in this book is the youngest of the explorers, Roger. Though this book was not necessarily intended to be the last about these characters, I found it a fitting ending to Roger’s story, as he spends more time on his own, and even has a chance of saving the day when everyone else is captured by the Gaels. It was interesting to me to look back on the very first scene of the first book, where he runs like a sailboat across the field to his mother, and to observe how his character has evolved into a mischievous and playful child with a mind and personality all his own. I only wish that the series could have continued for twelve more books in order to see the other characters realize the same level of character development.

Though there are books I have loved (Winter Holiday, We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, and Secret Water) and others I have not enjoyed as much (Peter Duck, Missee Lee, Pigeon Post), I have to say that reading this series over the past two years has been wonderfully enjoyable. It’s one of the few children’s series whose quality is maintained across many volumes, and whose author finds consistently compelling stories to tell, all drawn from real-world experiences. Few of the outdated references are truly problematic, and boys and girls alike can find characters and situations with whom they can sympathize in each book. It’s hard to believe that the only remaining story set in the Swallows and Amazons universe is the unfinished Coots in the North. I will dearly miss reading new adventures about these beloved characters, and I look forward to re-reading the entire series when my daughter is old enough to appreciate them.

Recommend Great Northern? and each of the other books in the Swallows and Amazons series to middle grade readers interested in adventure, nature, and sailing, and especially to those sophisticated readers who can truly recognize and appreciate great writing. Kids who read these books will find in each volume characters they’ll want to befriend and experiences they’ll wish they could have for themselves.

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