Swallows and Amazons

by Arthur Ransome

This book is number 57 on the BBC’s Big Read list and is a children’s book.

The Swallows are four children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, who are spending the summer in the Lake District with their mother, baby sister and baby sister’s nurse. Their father is away at sea but has given permission by telegram for them to take a boat and a couple of home-made tents and sail off to an island in the lake to camp by themselves.

The children spend most of their time in a┬ámake-believe world where the lake is a sea with the North Pole at one end and the Antarctic at the other. They have renamed all the places around the lake and so the river leading into it has become the Amazon, the village has become Rio and a pool part way along the river has become the Octopus Lagoon. They use sailor/pirate/explorer words for everyday things and people. The local people are referred to as natives and the charcoal burners as savages; a snake is a serpent; lemonade is grog; they don’t go fishing, instead they go whaling.

The children quickly settle into a peaceful routine on the island, but then find themselves under attack by a couple of Amazon pirates. The arrow-firing Amazons are two sisters, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, who are also staying by the lake with their mother. The Amazons have their own boat and had previously claimed the island as their own. They do not take kindly to the intruding Swallows and the two sides declare war. However, they are soon united in battle against the mean Captain Flint (aka the Amazons’ Uncle Jim) who lives on a nearby houseboat.

Adventures follow and the Swallows and Amazons find ‘treasure’ which had been stolen from Captain Flint. This endears him to the children and he gives them his parrot and agrees to lead them on a bigger adventure the following summer.

The book was first published in 1930 and the story is set in the 1920s. It always shocks me a bit when I’m reminded of how big the gap between the classes was in those days and how the working classes would be treated as so inferior. This is the case with this book. The children, with their naval father and baby sister’s nurse, are obviously middle-class. The local farmers and villagers refer to them as Master Roger, Miss Susan and so on. When a policeman comes to the island to follow up a complaint from Captain Flint the Amazon sisters, who know him, are downright rude to him and talk down to him as though he is a naughty boy – ‘as long as you’re good we won’t tell your mother’. The policeman is frightened and chastised and hastily leaves.

All in all, I enjoyed the book though I’m glad I don’t have to teach the children – I think they’d be damned annoying and precocious in real life and I doubt I’d last a day with them before I’d be sacked for insubordination!

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