Thursday, July 5, 2012

Climbing Kanchenjunga

I love to read children’s books, and I favor the classics, and of all the ones I’ve read (and reread) my all-time favorites are the 12-book Swallows and Amazons series by British author (and illustrator) Arthur Ransome (1884-1967), written in the 1930s/40s.

Most of the books follow the adventures of the Walker family children John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the “Swallows”, called after their small sailboat) and their friends Nancy and Peggy Blackett (the Amazons).  A few books focus on Dick and Dorothea Callum, who appear as side characters in earlier books.  And two of the books are oddities in that while they read like one of the regular adventures, they are actually invented tales by the children themselves during the winter holidays and have rather outlandish elements.

Why do I love these books?  Well, first, they are full of old-fashioned, simple activities, and take place in a time when children were allowed to go off by themselves and invent their own fun.  The Walker children are often near water and love to sail (by themselves), with stories set in the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads.  They get to camp on a small island in a lake for days and days at a time, or camp out on the nearby hills, or on the low lands of Norfolk, without adult interference.  They love to imagine they are explorers and the rest of the world consists of “natives” (some friendly, some not), and they love to turn ordinary activities into fantastic ones by “sailing to Rio” (instead of the more normal-named town) or “battling pirates” (instead of having a faux battle with the Blackett sisters’ uncle who lives on a houseboat) or “climbing Kanchenjunga” (instead of hiking up a much less daunting hill). 

John is the elder of the Walker clan, a resourceful leader who loves sailing above all else; Susan is the next oldest and she keeps the younger two in line and takes care that things don’t ever get too far out of hand; Titty is the younger girl who loves to draw maps and tell stories; Roger is the youngest of all and is mostly just a ball of energy who throws himself with gusto at every challenge.  They are not deep characters, but they are engaging and each has his or her moment in the sun, and they each have what I like to call “small revelations” about their place in the world which may not be momentous, yet are nonetheless affecting.

I love the settings and feeling for the natural world in these books.  The children pay close attention to the woods and water and animals and birds around them, and are clearly more comfortable in the outdoors than stuck in the “civilized” world.  The Blackett sisters are downright tomboys, eager to sail, hike, camp, get dirty – and loath to don silly frocks whenever their detested Great Aunt turns up for a visit.  One of the side characters, Dick Callum, is a diehard bird lover who gets his own starring role in the final book (Great Northern) when he goes head-to-head with an evil egg collector.   A passion for all things wild and free runs throughout the stories.

Each book can stand on its own though the children do age a little and learn from their previous experiences.  There are no major villains, or complex overarching plots, or fantasy elements, or romantic entanglements.  These are simple tales featuring inventive and very resourceful children in a British landscape where every school break is a call to adventure.   I’m reading them through for the third time*, with great joy.

*I admit to not caring for two of the twelve but batting ten out of twelve isn’t bad!


Swallows and Amazons  (introduces the Walker and Blackett children who camp on Wild Cat Island and have sailing adventures)

Swallowdale (the Walkers and Blacketts are forced to camp on land after the Swallow is nearly wrecked)

Peter Duck (a story made up by the children, about themselves tracking down buried treasure in the Caribbean, but very realistically done and quite exciting)

Winter Holiday (the Walker and Blackett children meet Dick and Dorothea Callum during a winter stay in the Lake District, when they explore the “Arctic” and look for the North Pole)

Coot Club  (Dick and Dorothea have their own adventure about a larger sailboat on the Norfolk Broads)

Pigeon Post (All the children re-unite in the Lake District where they search the nearby mines for gold)

We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea (the Walker children must sail a large boat across the Channel after being accidentally set adrift)

Secret Water (the Walker and Blackett children camping and sailing on uninhabited islands off Essex)

The Big Six (I don’t care for this one – while Dick and Dorothea are involved, it heavily features other children in the Norfolk Broads who I do not find as engaging)

Missee Lee  (another made-up story set improbably in the China Seas, with pirates – not a favorite)

The Picts & the Martyrs (the dreaded Great Aunt messes up the holidays for the Blackett sisters and Dick and Dorothea)

Great Northern?  (the children battle an egg collector on an island off the coast of Scotland)

All readily available in trade paperback from Godine (with illustrations by the author which are simple yet charming).

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