My father grew up on a road labeled with his family name. He lived in the first house on the road, next door was an aunt and down the road was the family farm where an uncle lived. When I was growing up we would visit my grandmother and this aunt and uncle and I have amazing memories of my time spent roaming on around this road that had my name too.
What was dreamy about this time was the expanse of freedom while running around with cousins through acres and acres of land. There was a bull into whose pasture we were warned never to enter. A creek ran through the property and we would splash through the water and into and out of the giant culverts under the road. My brother and cousin would climb into the rafters of the barn and we would all run free while the adults did their thing on the porch of the farm house. Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons hearkens me back to that time growing up.
The four children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, have left their busy home and taken to the countryside for a vacation while their father is away serving in the military. Their mother sets up home and the children immediately take off running through the landscape around them. This home is set on a lake and in the middle of the lake they see an island and quickly it becomes the dream of these children to take off and explore this fantastical place.
After achieving permission from their far-away father, led by the eldest brother, they take the boat and set off on what proves to be an exciting adventure. When they finally arrive at the island, they realize quickly that they weren’t the first to discover and set up camp there. While the island and the camp appear abandoned, this hiccup in their adventures quickly adds another element to their pirate encounters.
My favorite character in this entire story is the mother. One thing I mourn with my own children is the loss of our family farm and therefore the disappearance of a place for my children to just run and roam and take risks. I love this mother because she lets them go; but she does not just simply set them off. She makes their tents, she bids help from neighbors to supply them with fresh milk, and she works alongside them as they gather up their camping supplies. In essence, she enables them to go on an adventure where she has to trust that they will be alright. She visits them on their island and plays along with their adventure. This is the kind of mother I wish I had been when my children were smaller and continue to wish to be as my high school-age son is on the cusp of his own adventure into the unknown.
There are many other characters introduced to us in the book, namely the Amazons, who become their rivals. Beyond the pirating exploits between the Swallows and the Amazons, Ransome throws in a little mystery involving a boat captain and a midnight raid.
I will warn readers that there is a fair amount of sailing lingo throughout the book and we needed to do some research to help us envision what was happening during their many boating adventures and races on the lake. We found a fabulous website called allthingsransome.net which offers help with boating terms, and excellent photos of the area–because much like the memories of my family farm are forming stories in my head, Ransome’s stories of Swallows and Amazons are based on an actual lake and islands in the Lake District in England and many of the characters were based around actual families and people that he knew.
This is a fabulous family read-aloud and I highly recommend it. There are many other books in the series which I hope to read in the coming years.