Swallowdale is the second book in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons novels and lives up to the first novel’s excitement. The Swallows find themselves shipwrecked—while the Amazons are trapped at home by the visit of an overbearing Great Aunt—and are forced to become explorers on foot and mountain climbers. I thoroughly enjoyed every page.
What I love most about the series is how the books capture so beautifully the rich interior world of the child. Even though there are no wish-granting talismans no wardrobe doorways to secret worlds, no talking animal or spells or potions, there is a certain magic in them. It’s the magic that indwells the fertile imaginations of four children in a sailing dinghy on an English lake who at the same time are exploring the Amazonian wilds, farmer’s wives who are also native savages, and the discovery of uncharted territories in what to other eyes might be the tamest of landscapes.
Recently Amy Welborn wrote about that glimpse into the imaginative world of the child:
Leaps are amazing. Leaps in development, that is. A month ago, Joseph struggled so hard with his bicycle. Now he speeds off ahead of us, exploring, imagining. There is this point in the path we travel in which we cross a little stream. It is really nothing – not even a bridge. Just a crossing. He said to me the other day, �Did you see my Double Dragon Dare Move?� – meaning, he explained, how he stays clear of the water on either side, imaging, I suppose, raging rapids which he, using all of his new-found powers, can now avoid. Do we respect our children�s inner lives? Do we even remember that they have one?
What makes Arthur Ransome so magical, I suppose is a certain parallax. He doesn’t just remember that inner life, he writes from within it without any grown-up condescension and yet at the same time he has an adult’s insight and humor. This double vision gives his work a richness and depth that many children’s authors lack.
And yet for all their rich interior life, the Walker children and Ransome’s other heroes are not airy dreamers like fanciful the poet-children Emily of New Moon, Anne of Green Gables or the Little Princess Sarah Crewe. Imagine Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy exploring our world with the same blend of matter-of-fact competency and exploratory fervor with which the Pevensie’s explore Narnia. Ransome’s child heroes live in a here-and-now real world that mostly parallels the adult world, though they occasionally intersect (I know, I know, bad geometry!) They have a wonderful independence and are allowed a degree of freedom to explore their environment that belongs to a different universe than the hyper-protective, media-driven paranoia of today’s helicopter parents. I simply cannot imagine many parents today allowing their children to camp out by themselves for weeks with only a loose supervision of having to check in once a day to pick up milk from a local farm.
The children also have an amazing technical competence in many areas that I find myself envying: in the books I’ve read so far they have mastered sailing and navigation, surveying and map-making, assaying and geology, and of course they can build a fire, set up camp and cook and clean and pack and plan expeditions. They are not doomed when they are stranded in an uncharted wilderness or swept out to sea with no adult supervision.
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