#17: THE BEST SERIES OF CHILDREN’S NOVELS YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T READ. “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Everyone who’s ever read The Wind in the Willows remembers Ratty’s sentence, probably even people who’ve never been in a boat. “Is it so nice as all that?” his friend Mole asks. In twelve splendid stories, starting with Swallows and Amazons in 1930 and ending in 1947 with Great Northern?, Arthur Ransome demonstrates to even the laziest landlocked poor devil that yes, it really is as nice as all that. These books are great literary holidays—children’s stories in which Ransome’s first-hand experience of the outdoors gives the conventions poetry and conviction. He has a master’s sense of the double vision of childhood—reality and fantasy being barely a sentence apart—but also a master’s ease at integrating the hammer-and-nail details of boating—and camping, birding, spelunking, ice-sledding,
you name it—into completely absorbing stories (there’s not a dud in the lot). Twice he lets fancy loose on a couple of pirate stories and one late book, The Picts and the Martyrs, is a farce comedy that ties up neat as a pin. I suppose for some adults there’s nostalgia in the time and setting—the English Lake District and Norfolk Broads of the early 1930s, before highways and uglification had completely spattered the countryside—but Ransome doesn’t write nostalgically, and no children’s novelist hits his effects as delicately, as uninsistently, as he does.
Ransome’s own odd, primitive drawings are the perfect accompaniment, and they’ve been restored both to David Godine’s handsome American paperback editions and Jonathan Cape’s fine sturdy British hardcovers. The Arthur Ransome Society also has an amusing and informative website, www.arthur-ransome.org.uk. Another good site is www. allthingsransome.net. Coots in the North, the opening chapter of a thirteenth novel Ransome was unable to finish, was published in 1988 by Cape with some uncollected short stories—it isn’t easy to find but it’s worth having. Recently reprinted is Christina Hardyment’s Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk (Frances Lincoln, 2007), a readable account of the writing and locales of the series. Hugh Brogan’s biography The Life of Arthur Ransome (Jonathan Cape, 1984) is well-written and interesting, though I will admit to skimming the chapters of Ransome’s involvement in the Russian Revolution, a topic in which I seem to be genetically incapable of taking an interest. Roger Wardale’s books Nancy Blackett: Under Sail with Arthur Ransome (Jonathan Cape, 1991) and Arthur Ransome and the World of the Swallows and Amazons (Great Northern Books, 2000) are both good, the latter spectacularly illustrated.