aderam: (Horizon)
One of the great things about living with M is that we have pretty much the same taste in books, and certainly the same attitude toward them. In any case we've had loads of conversations about different books (and TV, and movies and things) that we remember from our childhoods (and since). It was in one of these that I remembered about Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. I've only read a few of them myself, but Mum read all of them to me and my brother as we were growing up and they are brilliant. I've started rereading them now - although completely out of order. I'm starting with Pigeon Post - which is probably number 6 or so in the series.

This is definitely one of those rare occasions where the book is actually better than I remember it being. It's a series about two (later three) families of children who sail dinghies while on holiday in the Lake Country in England in the '30s, and it was written during this time too. So it could quite easily be filled with bad stereotypes, racism, sexism, etc. But it's not! And Nancy is a considerably stronger female character than most of the characters we get on modern TV (not to nay-say the other girls in the books - it's just that Nancy is so very much in charge of everyone). Yes, it's one of those series of kids adventure books where the eldest in the family is a boy named John (a good alternative to Peter), and the second is a girl named Susan who is practical. But there is no stereotypical explanation for the Blackett sisters. And I love how even though John, as Captain of the Swallow, manages to win in the competition to be the flagship of their tiny fleet, Nancy who is Captain of the Amazon is still very clearly in charge whenever they are doing anything.

But the best thing about these books for me is the imagination.
- Nancy, who's real name is Ruth, refuses to answer to it because pirates are ruthless
- bananas being tied to trees to make banana-trees
- renaming the local village and all the different landmarks to be more exciting - Wild Cat Island, the great hill of Kanchenjunga, Rio, the North Pole etc
- being forced to interact with the Natives (locals and family members left behind on land)
- and endless battles both against and alongside Captain Flint aka Nancy and Peggy's Uncle Jim, who lives in a houseboat

I love them because all of the things that the Swallows (John, Susan, Titty and Roger), Amazons (Nancy and Peggy) and Ds (Dick and Dorothea) do in these books are perfectly normal things for kids their ages to do. They have all properly learned how to sail, or are learning from the older siblings, they are more than capable of cooking for and looking after themselves. And they're also never too far from their parents - who are responsible, loving adults. Who are in no way neglectful and are quite encouraging of their children's insanity so long as they aren't being idiots or unsafe. I think too many of these type of adventure books end up with kids doing things that kids should never have to do. And there are always moments when I wonder where their parents are and what they were thinking. But Swallows and Amazons describes the type of things that my brother and I either did or would have done if we'd been able to spend our holidays on a peaceful lake with easy access to a farm for our morning milk.

(Slight Digression - I love how camping in Mrs Tyson's orchard in Pigeon Post is much too close to civilization, but after they move camp they still send someone all the way down the hill every morning to get fresh milk for their tea. Certain definitions of "wilderness" apply.)

And the sailing is great too. I learned a lot of my first principles of sailing from these books - right off the get go with Roger tacking up and down the field with the telegram in the first chapter of Swallows and Amazons. It kinda makes me miss being out on the water - even though I really can't stand sailing in dinghies (I'm much too big for them).

Of course now I'm imagining the St. Lawrence II (the sail training vessel where I spent my high school summers - she's a brigantine, a tall ship) crewed by Swallows, Amazons and Ds. It would be awesome.

So thank you Arthur Ransome for being more awesome than your time period called for. For having awesome characters of both genders doing amazing and credible things. And for providing such good stories to fuel my imagination during my formative years. I wonder if when you wrote these books you ever thought that a 24-year-old in 2011 would read them as a means of sanity preservation while working on finishing her MA?

(And it's totally related to my Classics degree. The first homing pigeon was named Homer, so naturally the next two were also named for Greek poets. Thus: Sappho and Sophocles.)

Date: 2011-11-05 01:44 am (UTC)From: [personal profile] hobbitbabe
hobbitbabe: (Default)
I love love love these books for reasons very similar to yours, and I own all but one, and I cannot wait to introduce nephew Duncan to them, if his mum hasn't already. My dad said that he and his brothers learned all his campcraft from reading these books and reading the Scout handbooks (they weren't Scouts because it cost money). I remember my mum offering to read to me when I was 11 and in the hospital, and I picked a re-read of Swallows and Amazons as the most comforting book I could think of.

Also, the extractive metallurgy demonstrated in Pigeon Post is correct and I was so excited when my later academic studies verified that.

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