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Swallows and Amazons

July 14, 2011

Arthur Ransome’s 1930 book entitled Swallows and Amazons begins a twelve-book series about the adventures of children in boats. It introduces two of the main groups of children, the four Walker children who have come to the lake district of England on holiday and have their own sailing boat, the Swallow, and the two Blackett girls who live near the lake and sail a boat they call the Amazon.

There are few books that have been more beloved by my entire family; I didn’t read these books as a child, but have loved them extra hard (to make up for lost time) since I first read them to my children. We want to be among the many families who have made a literary pilgrimage to the lake district to see some of the landscape the books describe and take the Swallows and Amazons boat cruise on Coniston Water. Yes, Ruskin lived there, and Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage is farther north, and then there’s Beatrix Potter’s farm to tour, but none of them live in our imaginations quite as much as Wild Cat Island and Rio bay.

As a parent, I took some inspiration from the message the father of the Walker children sends, giving them permission to sail the Swallow across the lake and camp on an island by themselves for a week, even though the youngest one is only seven years old:

As a non-sailor, I delight in the characteristically brief but clear descriptions of what it’s like “messing about in boats” (to use a phrase from The Wind In the Willows):
“In the stern of Swallow there was a half-circle cut out of the transom, like a bite out of the edge of a bit of bread and butter. There was just room for an oar to lie loosely in it, so that the boat could be moved along by one oar worked from side to side, and this way and that so that it always pushes against the water. A lot of people do not know how to scull over the stern of a boat, but it is easy enough if you do know….”

And as a former child, I love the way these books capture the excitement of seeing something like a “brightly polished little brass cannon” on a houseboat which “once upon a time, perhaps…had been used for starting yacht races.”

There are so many delights in this first book, like why the older Blackett girl, the captain of the Amazons, calls herself Nancy, and the endless descriptions of food (our favorite is “squashed-fly biscuits.” (Think about it and give me your guess as to what they are in the comments.)

The tone of the writing is consistently marvelous—while it sometimes pulls back to reveal a bigger picture, its affection for the characters never lessens:
“Captain John spat on his hands, and rubbed them. This does not help much in climbing a rough-barked tree like a pine, but it seems to, so it is always worth doing.”

Even the semi-autobiographical character, the Blackett girls’ uncle, pokes a little fun at himself by saying “Never any of you start writing books. It isn’t worth it.” And yet Ransome went on doing it, and each of the books in his series is a jewel in its own setting, no two alike.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2011 9:02 am

    I haven’t read these in many years. I’m not sure they’ll be AJ’s cup of tea, but I should give them a try with him or at least reread them myself. I discovered them when I was around his age. My family had just moved to London and the book covers attracted me in the tiny Camden Town public library. The only one I own is Peter Duck, a family hand-me-down that I inherited a couple of years ago. They are the classic fall-into-a-book adventure stories I used to love as a child.

    • July 14, 2011 9:08 am

      You could start him with We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea or Missee Lee, because those are more action-packed!

  2. July 14, 2011 9:11 am

    Squashed fly biscuits are… squashed fly biscuits.

    I do wonder if this is where the term originated, or if it was in common use then too, but it’s certainly what the slightly-more-English side of my family called them. I’m sure they have a proper name too; it might even be on the packet, but I have no notion of what it might be.

    • July 14, 2011 9:44 am

      Drew, I’m guessing this is a metaphor that the English don’t even see as a metaphor anymore. The challenge for people from other countries is first of all to understand that a biscuit is a cookie, and second of all to guess what the “squashed flies” could be!

  3. freshhell permalink
    July 14, 2011 9:44 am

    Raisins? I’ve never read this and it sounds only vaguely familiar. I’ll find it. Dusty might enjoy it.

  4. July 14, 2011 9:46 am

    Raisins work as “squashed flies, ” although currants are specified in this book.

    • freshhell permalink
      July 14, 2011 10:21 am

      Currants! Of course. I hadn’t put my Anglophile hat on yet this morning.

      • July 14, 2011 10:56 am

        Putting my complete and utter pedant hat on, I’m not completely sure that raisins would qualify. Raisins tend to be bigger, jucier, more evidently fruity. Whereas a currant in this situation has a more angular, insectile look to it.

        Possibly this is the stuff of a new Knäckebröd War.

        • freshhell permalink
          July 14, 2011 11:49 am

          That is true but in my head I was thinking “black things added to biscuits/cookies/muffins, etc” and “raisin” was the first thing I thought of because they are more common here. But, when Jeanne corrected me, I realized that these are English tales and so “currant” would be the proper raisin-like fruit. I don’t use currants much except at Xmas time.

  5. July 14, 2011 4:36 pm

    OH! I love this series too and also didn’t read it until I was an adult – when I got all the books for the kids. Now, I really think I got it for myself. 😉 I was just thinking the other day that it might be fun to reread them. I love seeing reviews like this, Jeanne, that are about old gems that should not be overlooked today!

  6. July 14, 2011 6:03 pm

    It is fun to reread them. And I’m glad to hear there’s another person who discovered these as an adult!

  7. July 14, 2011 9:04 pm

    I didn’t read the other comments because I don’t want to cheat, but my suspicion is that squashed-fly biscuits include raisins, or since it’s the oldenish days, possibly currant. I feel like currant biscuits (maybe some sort of short-bread cookie with currant in?) would be a nice sort of thing to eat while on a boat.

  8. July 14, 2011 10:14 pm

    You’re absolutely right, although they don’t usually eat in the boat; they tend to sail or row somewhere and make a camp with a fire to boil water for tea before getting out their cookies with currants in them. Very English!

    Ww keep currants in the house to put into cream scones. Often we soak the currants in water to plump them up, so they look less insect-like.

  9. July 15, 2011 12:09 am

    I’ve been meaning to read these forever, and I even have Swallows and Amazons somewhere upstairs. Maybe I will go find it now.

    • July 15, 2011 8:41 am

      Yes! Do it!
      Partly on your recommendation, I’ve been reading a little of A Game of Thrones every night before I go to sleep, but I haven’t gotten more than halfway yet.

  10. trapunto permalink
    July 18, 2011 2:57 pm

    I used to walk the three miles to the nearest convenience store and buy squashed fly biscuits in college, and stop to snack on them in the graveyard before heading back to campus. Only they don’t call them that in New England, and I first heard of them in another book. Usually I hate anything with raisins, but there’s just something about masticating those little half-burn black things studding the powdery refined-flour cooky-substance…

    Someone should do a blog about iconic foods in books.

    I loved Swallows and Amazons when I finally read it as a post-collegiate grownup. Fantastic.

    • July 26, 2011 12:04 pm

      Iconic food in books…hmm, I’ll have to roll that one around in my mouth for a while.

  11. Elaine permalink
    February 14, 2012 1:30 pm

    I have always assumed the ‘squashed fly biscuits’ beloved by the Swallows are Garibaldi biscuits. They are a slightly sweet (English) biscuits with a layer of currants in the middle. They have certainly been around since my childhood in the forties, when I knew them by both names, and no doubt predate that decade. They are still easily obtained at most English supermarkets.

    • February 14, 2012 1:53 pm

      We’ll have to look for those next time we get to England!

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