‘The island had come to seem one of those places seen from the train that belong to a life in which we shall never take part…’
I was raised on a diet of Enid Blyton. I should have been raised on milk and bread but times were hard. I spent hours working my way through the Famous Five and Secret Seven books so I am definitely no stranger to the concept of a children’s adventure book. It is surprising then that it took me a couple of hundred pages before I started to warm to Swallows and Amazons.
Two groups of children staying in the Lake District lay claim to a remote island on which they frolic, play and speak to each other awfully politely the whole time. Perhaps it took a while for me to get into it as this is a completely alien concept to me. The closest we came to camping on a desert island was building a hammock in the wooded area near our house that was filled with dirty magazines and empty cider bottles. Not quite the romantic ideal that Arthur Ransome probably had in mind when he wrote his seminal novel.
My main criticism of Swallows and Amazons would be that the characters just aren’t distinctive enough. I found it difficult to tell my Nancy’s from my Susan’s because they just are just too similar. As a comparison, the March girls from Little Women are instantly recognisable within the first few chapters. This makes for a frustrating and unnecessarily difficult read. This contributed to the overall view that parts of Swallows and Amazons really were a slog. There are endless chapters that crawl by marked only by the eating of endless picnics and constant discussions about the pitching of tents. Having said that though, the novel really picks up by the final third and I was genuinely into it by the conclusion.
Ransome’s most famous work did awaken some long dormant memories about endless summers and childhood adventures but ultimately, the situations described in Swallows and Amazons are just too dissimilar to anything I ever experienced. This doesn’t make it a bad book, and it isn’t that, but it certainly wasn’t for me.