by Arthur Ransome, first published 1931
“‘Wild Cat Island in sight!’ cried Roger, the ship’s boy, who was keeping a look-out, wedged in before the mast, and finding that a year had made a lot of difference.”
No author of a children’s book gives children’s imagination the place of honor in the same way that Arthur Ransome does. Throughout the entire book, we live within the imaginative world that the four children (and their two friends) have created for themselves. John, the eldest of the four, is always Captain, Susan is first mate, and even Bridget, the fifth of the siblings, an infant who doesn’t go on their adventures, is known as “the ship’s baby.” Swallowdale allows us to stay within the minds of John, Susan, Titty and Roger as they have another summer holiday on their beloved lake. In this sequel to of Swallows and Amazons, much of the adventure takes place elsewhere on the land surrounding the lake.
I was warned by several people to be sure to read Swallows and Amazons first. But alas, the library had Swallowdale available first, so I jumped in. While it probably has ruined the suspense for me when I do read the first book next, nevertheless, there were no missing links by reading this second book out of order. Ransome is very skilled at filling in past details without making the reader feel bored in any way. In fact, he has a very unusual style in his children’s book, for many chapters begin with a summary of what just happened. It reminds me of someone who writes a book knowing that there might be long gaps between the reading of chapters. Or, as a great storyteller might do, weaves the next episode by picking up the threads from the previous. I’ve never encountered this style in a children’s book and it feels somewhat comforting.
Most of all, what is astounding in Swallowdale, and I am sure it exists in the first children’s book as well, is that the children are totally trusted to be independent, much more so than any child today might be. The children climb mountains, sail boats on the lake, set up camp, and live out on their own. And yet, when anything might go awry, it’s clear that a watchful adult eye is not far away, and can step in to help out. Yet the reader comes away with an awesome sense of what it might be like to trust to the good sense of the children and let them learn from their adventures. For the readers who never really get out on their own, living the adventures vicariously may be quite satisfying.
Buy this at your local independent bookstore: