In the book Swallows and Amazons, four children from a 1930’s upper middle class English family spend their summer holiday on an unnamed lake in England’s Lake District. Roger is the youngest at 7, and John is the oldest at about 12; Susan is about 10 and Titty (an unfortunate name for today’s readers) is about 8. Their father is in the Navy, and their mother lets the four of them sail off in a small sailboat named “Swallow” so that they can camp out on an island in the middle of the lake.
Soon they meet two other children, the sisters Nancy (age 13) and Peggy (age 12), who fly the Jolly Roger from the mast of their own small boat, which is named “Amazon.” The six children become friends, although their friendship includes skirmishes and a naval war, and the rest of their summer is shaped by the boats they sail.
One of the highest values these children hold is to be good sailors. The younger children, Roger and Titty, long to be allowed to take the tiller of “Swallow.” The crews of the Swallow and the Amazon watch each other’s ability closely, and of course they race each other. The next highest value these children hold is self-sufficiency. They camp out on the island, cook for themselves, and do their best to take care of themselves. It may be that these two values, self-sufficiency and good sailing, cannot be separated for these particular children: to have the responsibility of sailing a small boat is to learn self-sufficiency. At least one organization in Boston, Community Boating, believes this to be true, and offers children (even those who can’t afford it) the opportunity to learn how to sail on the Charles River Basin.
No need to tell you all the adventures the children have. Suffice it to say that all their adventures, while fictional, could be true; everything they do is something that children of their age could manage, including living on their own in the outdoors for a week. These are not carefully protected children of 21st C. North American suburbia; these are children who are expected to learn how to take care of themselves. You can’t help but notice the influence that the ideals of British Empire have on these children, and some will reject the children’s self-sufficiency on that score.
(More astute readers might suspect that Empire is living on in these children’s play in the same way that the ravages of the Plague live on in the game “Ring-around the Rosy.” Better to play at departed Empire, if it leads a child to self-sufficiency and a love of the outdoors, than to play at video-games, which will be a useful skill once the child grows up and joins the United States military, but which will ultimately lead only to dependency and slothfulness, and a lack of competence at living outdoors.)
Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons, wrote a dozen other related books with the same characters. Speaking of the ones I have read, Ransome’s books seem to me to encourage children’s self-sufficiency without resorting to the pyrotechnics of, say, Harry Potter. If you have children, have them read Swallows and Amazons now, and deal with the longing for small boats later.
The book is still in print, and I found my paperback copy in the “Harvard Book Store”: Link. Another bookstore, “Curious George Goes to Wordsworth,” tries to keep all twelve volumes of the series in stock in their Cambridge, Mass., store (but call them for mail-order, because not all their books are availabel through their Web site): Link. One of the mangers of “Curious George Goes to Wordsworth” told me that the distributor thinks the books look “too old-fashioned” and doesn’t always keep them in stock, so the bookstore may have to back-order individual volumes now and then.
There is also a fan club for those who like Swallows and Amazons: Link.
Post revised August 20, 2006.