I left my desk for a brief jaunt about campus, to grab a coffee at the diner and a new pad of graph paper at the bookstore. The bookstore is having a fundraiser sale of donated books, which I checked out on my way to the stationary section. It was mostly thriller paperbacks and some crappy self-help stuff, but I did manage to pick up a novel by one of my favourite authors, and it’s even one I’ve yet to read: Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome.
I suppose this book is considered a child’s story, one of many in Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. However, I missed out on this collection when I was a kid, and only got into it a few years ago, at which point I was promptly hooked.
The main characters are a group of (wealthy, white, able-bodied) British children in the 1930s who live the stereotypical life associated with fictional kids in that context: The majority of their year is spent at assorted boarding schools, but they come together in England’s Lake District for the summer (and sometimes winter) holidays. Think of the Narnia books (or maybe Enid Blyton? I’ve only read a few, so am not sure), except that these children are very obsessed with boats and all things nautical. With a host of parents/guardians who are either delightfully permissive or deliciously absent, the friends and siblings that make up the gangs of Swallows and Amazons lead a life of wholesome adventure with the occasional real danger thrown in for good measure.
In today’s parlance, these kids would be nerds: They’re always pursuing some new avenue of interest, from books or convenient adults, usually related to nature, do-it-yourself, and bits of technology that are no longer current and yet still charmingly interesting. Seriously, the novel Pigeon Post had me all dreaming of raising carrier pigeons, and at least half of my knowledge of sailing terminology and techniques comes from these books.
What makes Ransome’s books so worthwhile? For me, aside from the nerd factor, it’s the female characters: The young women in these novels are strong and adventurous and busy doing millions of things that go far beyond the typical care-taking role often given to similar protagonists. Every volume passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, which I feel is especially relevant in books meant for young readers.
What else can I say? Well, it seems that Peter Duck involves a sailing voyage to the Caribbean, and given the era of the novel, I’m guessing that there’s going to be some fucked-up racial stuff in store for my reading (dis)pleasure. But hey, maybe somehow that won’t happen! I can only hope.
As a final note, I just want to tell you that my very favourite Arthur Ransome novel is We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, in which the children find themselves sailing unsupervised across the Channel. They rescue a kitten from a shipwreck! ZOMG! It’s amazing!
Also, I recommend The Far-Distant Oxus, which is a novel not by Arthur Ransome but rather two young Swallows and Amazons fans who wrote it while they themselves were attending boarding school. Unfortunately, it has a whole load of crazy Persia-fixated orientalism that I find to be quite gag-worthy and renders the novel unsuitable for unaccompanied minors. However, this could be used as a great way of opening discussions about culture/ethnicity/etc with kids, and it definitely gave me a lot to the think about from a critical standpoint, in terms of how two young British women saw themselves in the colonial context of the mid-1930s. Yes, this is yet another thesis topic, to add to my ever-growing collection.
Finally: Someday I will get a tattoo of the Swallows and Amazons logo, because it is just so damn cool.