Messing About in Boats

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“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” So says Water Rat to Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. And for me, the quintessential books for children about messing about in boats are The Wind in the Willows and Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons” series. Ransome began his literary life as a somewhat unsuccessful writer of adult books about London life and Russia before, during, and after the revolution. He was a war correspondent during World War One and later he had some connection with the British espionage agency, M-5.

By the end of the 1920s he and his second wife, Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, who had been Trotsky's personal secretary, settled in England’s lovely Lake District, an area where he had played during much of his childhood. It is not certain if he was writing for children or for his own pleasure, but when Swallows and Amazons appeared in 1930, which was set in 1929 on and around a fictional lake that partakes of Coniston Water and other real locations, it quickly became a favorite with readers of all ages.

Swallows and Amazons
This book, which gives the title to the series, established Arthur Ransome as one of the great writers of children’s books. It tells the story of two families. John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker, who are spending the summer on a farm at “the great lake of the north.” They find a sailboat called Swallow and sail to a deserted island they name Wild Cat Island, where they camp. Unbeknownst to them, a pair of sisters named Nancy and Peggy Blackett, the Amazon pirates who have their own sailboat, also claim the island. After a parley, they decide to join forces but first there will be a competition to see who the overall leader will be. There is plenty of sailing and a common enemy in the form of the Blacketts’ Uncle Jim, whom they nickname Captain Flint. Rather than joining his nieces in jolly adventures this summer, Captain Flint has gone native and spends his time locked away on his houseboat, writing his memoirs.

Pigeon Post
Other books follow and new characters and settings are introduced. The Swallows and Amazons and their new friends mine for gold, sail to a treasure island, spend a winter holiday searching for the North Pole (at the head of the lake), and hunt for rare birds in Scotland.

Mercer Country Library system holds many of Arthur Ransome’s books, and is adding audio versions of the Swallow and Amazon series. Imagine lying in a hammock, listening to the sailing tales of long ago yet timeless children. For more information about these wonderful books and the readers of all ages who enjoy them, visit the site of The Arthur Ransome Society.

--Mary Elizabeth Allen 

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