28 September 2006

Swallows & Amazons III

This is the third in a three-part series about the Swallows & Amazons series, by Arthur Ransome. (The first two parts are here and here.) This time I’m going to talk about the last three-and-a-bit books in the series:

Missee Lee (ML) is another piece of metafiction. Captain Flint, the Swallows, and the Amazons are taking Wildcat on a world cruise (with Swallow and Amazon as ship's boats). Whilst en route from their 100th port (an unspecified location somewhere in the Far East) to Singapore, they meet with an accident involving Roger’s pet monkey, Captain Flint’s cigar, and the ship’s petrol tanks, which results in Wildcat’s sinking and everyone’s being at sea in Swallow and Amazon. The two boats get separated during the night; the Amazons (with Captain Flint) are picked up by a pirate junk, while the Swallows find themselves on an island just off the coast of China. The junk turns out to belong to the Taicoon Chang, who is a lesser pirate chief under the infamous Miss Lee – and the island belongs to Miss Lee herself. Hopes for rescue are dashed when Miss Lee, who has fond memories of time spent at Cambridge years ago, refuses to release her prisoners. Instead, she announces that they will stay on Dragon Island and study Latin with her....

The Picts and the Martyrs (PM) takes place in the early summer of 1933. The Amazons and the Ds are alone at Beckfoot. Well, not entirely alone; the Blacketts’ cook is there with them. But Molly Blackett has been ill, so her brother (Captain Flint) has taken her on a sea voyage; the Swallows won’t be arriving for another two weeks; and the Callums’ parents can’t come to the lake yet because the Professor is grading papers. The good news, though, is that a brand new boat, Scarab, is being built for the Ds, and will be ready in just a couple of days. And the bad news is that someone has told Great Aunt Maria that Nancy and Peggy are home alone. The GA, of course, considers it her duty to cancel all her plans and come to take care of the girls – which means best frocks, piano, poetry, &c, &c. The children agree that things would be even worse, especially for Molly, if the GA discovers that Nancy and Peggy have house guests while their mother is away. And so Nancy comes up with an idea: The Ds will move into a deserted hut near Beckfoot for two weeks (the GA will be leaving the day before Molly and Captain Flint return home) and remain hidden – as the Picts are said to have done – while the other two girls stay home as martyrs, keeping the GA happy. But the doctor, the postman and others have to be roped in as unwilling conspirators, and every day the chance of the Picts’ discovery becomes greater. And then the GA disappears....

There is debate as to whether Great Northern? (GN) is a part of the series proper, or is yet another bit of metafiction, due to a heightened level of danger and violence that is not found in most of the books. There’s also a problem with timing, as the birds which are nesting in this book would normally be nesting during the school term. But Swallows, Amazons, Ds and Captain Flint are touring the Hebrides in a borrowed boat, Sea Bear, and Dick is eagerly hoping to see birds he has never sighted before, especially divers. He gets his wish on what is supposed to be the next-to-last day of the trip, spotting a black-throated diver. But he also sees what looks like a pair of great northern divers, nesting – and great northern divers never nest in Great Britain. There’s another birder in the area, Mr Jemmerling, looking for birds in his motor yacht Pterodactyl, but when he hears about the great northerns his first reaction is to want to shoot them and take their eggs for his collection. And the Ds have spent too much time with the Coots to permit that....

Coots in the North would have brought the Death and Glories up to join the Swallows and the Amazons in the Lake District, but Ransome only wrote a few chapters before stopping work on it. His notes indicate that he was having problems finding a satisfactory solution to getting the boys home after they hitched a ride north with a boat that was being delivered to the lake. Part of the story is available in Coots in the North and Other Stories, edited by Hugh Brogan and published in 1998. (No, I have no idea what the "other stories" are.)

Why do I like these books so much? Well, they’re about kids doing really cool things, like camping and sailing. And they’re a link to a simpler time in the past – imagine the reaction if it were discovered that parents were allowing their children to swim, sail (without life preservers), and camp out on an island, cooking their own meals over an open fire, all without adult supervision. (It’s plainly pointed out in SA, and I think also in SD, that Roger is too young to use matches, though he does have his own pocketknife.)

The politically correct crowd may have problems with a couple of the books. The famous N-word is used in PD, though in reference to black pearls, not to people. And not only do Miss Lee’s pirates speak pidgin, but Miss Lee has the most amazing stereotypical accent, with references to “Loger” (Roger) and “Camblidge.”

If you like these books, you’ll – well, I’m not sure what to suggest here. Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock wrote a trio of books, beginning with The Far-Distant Oxus*, about children and ponies on the moors of southwestern England, but the books are long out of print and the last time I tried to ILL them only the first one was to be had. Some of Enid Blyton’s stories have the same sort of feel, especially the eight mysteries of the Adventure series. The only book about American children and a sailboat that comes readily to mind is The Lion’s Paw, by Robb White.

Want to learn more about the books, or about their author? (During World War I he was a reporter, covering the Eastern Front and the Russian Revolution; he eventually married Trotsky’s secretary.) The Arthur Ransome Society (TARS) can be found here.

(Incidentally, the S&A book covers I used to illustrate these posts were nicked from the Arthur Ransome page at Fantastic Fiction, an excellent source for readers looking to see what other books an author may have written, or the correct order for books in a series.)

* I love Ransome’s story of the writing of this book.


Oxus books fan said...

I saw your comment about "The Far Distant Oxus". You might like to look at my blog: http://oxusbooks.blogspot.com/
I am collecting information abut the books and the authors and a website fardistantoxus.com is soon to go live.
Meanwhile copies of the books ARE available and turn up on Amazon and E-Bay - Fidra Books have published the first and I believe may publish the others.

Caroline said...

Enjoyed reading your summaries - I've always loved the Ransome books (though never found the last, incomplete one) perhaps because they're somewhat similar to many of my childhood memories of hiking, camping and canoeing (alas very little sailing).

In response to your recommended section, books that I've found quite similar to Ransome are the works of Elizabeth Enright ('Gone-Away Lake' and 'Return to Gone-Away'; and 'The Saturdays', 'The Four-Story Mistake' and 'Then There Were Five'). These are set in America but also feature children's holidays in the countryside. There is also the delightful 'The Pip-Larssons go Sailing' by Edith Unnerstad as the children go sailing through the Swedish archipelago.

The only vaguely similar books I could think of that were set in England were 'Penallan's Folly' by Barbara Sanders about smugglers; 'The Perrys and Puffin' by Ralph Anno about children fixing up a Dutch barge; and perhaps the most similar to the older Ransome books - 'The Islanders' by Roland Pertwee - where the boys run free, Swiss Family Robinson style.

Ulla said...

Hi, Old Coot,
I'm a great fan of the Swallows and Amazons, and found you when looking for the last book Coots in the North. It feels good to see I'm not the only no more young person who likes these books!