Swallows and Amazons, Pigeon Post

Cover of "Swallows and Amazons"photo of Jonathan Cape edition of Arthur Ranso...



Swallows and Amazons

by Arthur Ransome

London: Jonathan Cape, 1930

363 pp.

Pigeon Post

CARNEGIE MEDAL WINNER – 1936

by Arthur Ransome

London: Jonathan Cape, 1936

433 pp.

Age: (read to) 6+, (read independently) 9+

Interests: boats, sailing, camping, adventures, summer vacation, maps, exploring

These are the first and sixth books in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. Highly popular in Britain, they are much less familiar to North American readers. Each book in the series is set in various locations in England and Scotland between the world wars, and tells the adventures of children on vacation, camping and sailing largely without adult supervision.

In Swallows and Amazons four siblings – John, Susan, the unfortunately monikered Titty, and Roger Walker – convince their mother to allow them to camp on their own on a small island in the middle of a lake for several days. They sail around in their small boat The Swallow, exploring and naming places in accordance with their vivid imaginations. (The local town is dubbed Rio, a large river becomes the Amazon, and their own tiny island is Wildcat Island.) When their blissful existence on the island is disturbed by two wild sisters who fancy themselves pirates, war ensues… namely, a good-natured contest to see who can ambush and capture the other crew’s boat. The Swallows attempt a night raid, but the girls on their boat Amazon are always one step ahead. There is some confusion in the dark but in the end the Swallows win the war and the two crews become fast friends. There is an amusing battle with the obliging uncle of the Amazons, as the kids storm his houseboat and make him walk the plank, and Titty and Roger discover real buried treasure (ie. recently burgled goods).

Pigeon Post has the children camping out again but this time they are prospecting for gold, and keeping in touch with the Amazons’ mother by daily pigeon post. After much intensive exploring, they locate an abandoned mine with a seam of what looks like gold. They endeavour unsuccessfully to melt their crushed samples into an ingot by means of a homemade charcoal furnace. This may be a failure, but when they spot a wildfire just starting, they are able to send word via pigeon post to alert the firefighters and save the entire area. It turns out the gold they found is actually copper ore, so their discovery turns out to be valuable after all.

These are somewhat dated books, old-fashioned in their sunny optimism and lack of real danger (except for the fire in Pigeon Post), but they should still be quite exciting for sailing and camping enthusiasts. The children do their best to live up to the unbelievable independence their parents have granted them, and as a result are incredibly hard-working, resourceful and well-mannered. Everything is run rather militarily, and their camp is maintained in perfect order.

Siblings who don’t squabble or fight? Eldest children who are fair and restrained when ordering the little ones about? Younger children who don’t resent the older ones for giving them jobs to do? Everyone happily pitching in to do all jobs, even the hard and tedious ones? High fantasy surely, and yet it’s a nice change from every other tale of squabbling siblings. In these stories the adventure and the quest is paramount, and everybody rises nobly to the challenge.

One big draw of the series is all the sailing, though the particulars of every sail trim, wind change, and anchor dropping are given in the kind of detail which can bog things down for non-sailors. Sailing enthusiasts, of course, will find it all quite entrancing. Pigeon Post is rare in the series for not featuring boats, focussing instead on exploring and mining.

I found these books old-fashioned but charming. The independence of the children is certainly novel and should appeal to young readers of any era. For the time, there are good female role models: the bold and assertive Amazon captain Nancy Blackett, who one could imagine really becoming a pirate some day, and the quieter, sensitive Titty who more often than not is the one to save the day.  The plots plod along at times, but the double narrative – actual events vs. the children’s imagined narratives of pirates and double-crossing miners – keeps things interesting.

There’s a lot of practical information included too, besides sailing and camping, readers can learn about homing pigeons, dowsing for water, how charcoal is made, how to make gold ingots, etc. The very knowledgeable kids are always explaining things to each other, and to us.  And I like that enough details are given about their handmade gadgets and inventions that readers could imagine making them too. For example, a diagram is given of the contraption they rig up to sound an alarm whenever a pigeon returns to the roost with a message.

They are books of another era, but should still draw in modern readers, particularly the boating and camping crowd.

(available on amazon: Swallows and Amazons, Pigeon Post)

Books in the Swallows and Amazons series, courtesy of Wikipedia:

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.