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A Book to Last a Lifetime; or, The Forever Holidays
Swallows & Amazons
Arthur Ransome

Click here for a listing of all Swallows & Amazons titles.
When i was eight or nine -- and that's a long long time ago, o best beloved -- my mother led me to a shelf in the "J" section of the Greenville (SC) Public Library, pulled a book off the shelf, and handed it to me.

"You might like this," she said. "I did, when I was your age."

What she didn't know was that, when she was my age, there were two or three books in the series; by the year i was born (the same year that the last book was published) there were twelve or thirteen books.

I liked it. You could say that.

You could say that Paul Bunyan chopped down one or two trees in his life, too.

It was incredible. Kids my own age -- sailing their own boats on a lake the size of an inland sea, it seemed, camping out by themselves on their own island, meeting pirates real and imaginary, fighting ferocious "wars" among themselves and with Captain Flint (the "pirate" in the houseboat), and more besides.

When i took it back, i began looking for the other volumes in the series, thus beginning a literally lifelong obsession (i was in my thirties before i got my hands on the last volume i hadn't read).

And, aside from the fact that my love of these books prompted me to read (though i really didn't need much prompting for that, actually), i can credit my lifelong interest in England and its culture and people to these books as well -- and, indeed, i think, my interest in almost all not-my-own cultures and places. Because here, i saw were children who, while very like me in their basic interests and drives, were very unlike me in their everyday life. Consciously and unconsciously, i began to absorb images and details of Other Places.

(By the time i was eleven, i discovered Leslie Charteris's dapper and o-so-English "Modern Robin Hood", the Saint. But by that time, from thses books and some others, i already knew how to count English money [decimalisation was still quite a way in the future] and had some idea how riding an English 'bus or train was different from the same sort of thing here in the States.)

As i discovered other volumes in the series, i devoured them. I rode the rudimentary iceboat on its wild career up the lake with Dick and Dot. I rescued a shipwrecked kitten in the middle of the North Sea with the Swallows. I danced in a "cannibal corroborree" with Nancy and Peggy. I dowsed for water with Titty and i discovered gold with Roger.

I attacked the houseboat, and i ran chemical analyses in its main cabin. With Tom Dudgeon, i set adrift the motoryacht that blocked the bird's nest, and i photographed the rare birds in the Scottich islands with Dick.

I went on so many adventures with my friends, John, Susan, Titty, and Roger (and sometimes Bridget) Walker and Nancy (because Amazon pirates are Ruthless) and Peggy Blackett and with Dick & Dorothea Callum that i sometimes have trouble remembering them all...

And sometimes i remember adventures that Arthur Ransome never bothered to write down, because, for me as for so many others, worldwide, the Swallows and the Amazons and the D's and the Coot Club are real people --living in an eternal nineteen-thirties, sailing and gold-mining and exploring and catching thieves and vandals and protecting birds and all of the other things that they or i can think of to do on our holidays.

And, when i remember, when i wander among those memories, i am again nine or ten or thirteen, running barefoot to push the "Sawllow" off, set the sail, and catch the wind on a broad reach to some new adventure, or back to an adventure i loved or just to soak up the warm sun and wait for something to happen.

If you know a bright child who reads well[1], then you might try him (or her; if anything, the female characters here -- especially Captain Nancy -- are more strongly drawn than the males) on "Swallows & Amazons", or skip a few ahead and try "We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea", an incredible story with as much action as the average "action" film but no violence.

If they click with the books, then they will have literary friends for life (I am in my fifties and still reread these books occasionally), and certainly will begin to appreciate that thw world is wider and richer than our everyday lives.

[1]These are, after all, books intended for British children in the 1930s, and they are written at a somewhat higher level than, most US books for seven and nine year olds and contain terms and narrative/cultural assumptions some USAn children might have trouble with)