The hot, bright dog days somehow transport the harried adult mind to the carefree summers of childhood, leaving us longing for a vacation and, perhaps, an adventure. Things are a little different this year, and if you cannot get away to your favorite retreat, you can at least take a family holiday with Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome.
In the pages of this British classic, first published in 1930, the four Walker children are spending the summer with their mother and baby sister at a lakeside farmhouse. They discover a small island that appears to be uninhabited, and appeal to their parents for permission to sail to the island and camp there unaccompanied for a time as explorers. Their father, himself a sailor off at sea, sends a famous telegram communicating his consent, and the children eagerly prepare for their excursion.
Mrs. Walker, an experienced outdoorswoman, supplies the children with everything they’ll need and sees them off in Swallow, the sailing boat at the landing below the farm. The family members are all accomplished sailors, and the siblings quickly agree upon their positions as crew members: Captain John, Mate Susan, Able Seaman Titty, and Ship’s Boy Roger. They sail to the island and begin their exploration in proper naval fashion.
But the peace of their dominion is haunted by the feeling that someone had been there before, and sure enough they are attacked by marauding pirates: the Blackett sisters, Captain Nancy and Mate Peggy in their own vessel, Amazon. Under truce, the two parties declare a friendly war to determine which of the crews is superior before launching an alliance against their common enemy, the terrible Captain Flint (and the Blackett girls’ own uncle).
After several days with no wind, the Swallows and Amazons finally commence their battle. It is a fierce engagement of wits and strategy, and the Swallows emerge victorious. The Amazons settle in the camp with them, and the war against Captain Flint begins. But their foe – who has disrespected John and refused to play with his nieces all summer – now blames the children for stealing a valuable treasure; when in fact, they are the only ones who can help him find it.
This swashbuckling chapter book is a fabulous read for both children and adults. The children in the story quite magically remain in character as explorers and pirates throughout – addressing one another in correct naval form and suspicious of all outsiders – which welcomes the reader into their wonderful world. They are actually quite skilled in handling their boats and making camp, and their earnest compunction in discharging their duties with shipshape enthusiasm lends enjoyable whimsy to their very capable real-life conduct.
Indeed the children are mannerly, and unfailingly honorable; treating each other well and acting justly in peace and war. The Blackett sisters prove to be bloodthirsty pirates but trustworthy allies, while the Walker children each grow in character and ability as they roam the island. The examples of friendship, large family support, genuine self-reliance, and creative outdoor play are all enormously positive.
There is quite a lot of sailing jargon in this first book of a series – not to mention some rollicking sea shanties – so it is best read aloud or by a reader confident enough to look up unknown terminology or determine meanings from context. Words for various foodstuffs are a bit dated (though the children live surprisingly well on seedcakes and bunloaf), as is the assumption that white-faced explorers will find “savages” when landing on uncharted territories. Yet, at ninety years old, Swallows and Amazons has unquestionably stood the test of time, and contains sound inspiration for a new generation growing up in the great outdoors; or, for adults who long to recover the heady adventures of a childhood summer. Swallows and Amazons forever!
If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Five Children and It by E. Nesbit