Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

So who, on reading this book, didn’t spend hours tacking round the garden? I did. Right arm up, left arm out – ready about. I was Captain Nancy. I didn’t let the fact that I had never sailed a boat in my life interfere with the enjoyment.

Here is another wonderful story of childhood self-sufficiency, the sort of thing that simply wouldn’t happen now, because any mother who let her children camp out on an island on their own for days at a time would probably be reported to social services for neglect. Conversely, how many children now would actually be able to manage to camp out like this, or even want to? No mobile signal, no wifi; the list is endless. When I read this book as a child, before there were any electronic considerations, camping on Wild Cat Island as the children do sounded idyllic, and later as an adult you can still revel in the children’s freedom, whilst thinking you’d never let yours do that, duffers or no duffers . . . . .

The delight of this book is that although it is a perfectly normal island, the imagination of the children creates a fabulous world of natives, pearl diving, treasure, and endless seas containing both active and retired pirates. It is a world where the everyday and the imaginary run usefully in parallel, as summed up by Captain Nancy: ” . . . . we’d have given you broadside for broadside till one of us sank – even if it had made us late for lunch.”

Finally, I know many people feel that Ransome’s line drawings add to the charm and simplicity of the books, but I was never that keen on them and found them too basic. I don’t think he can have been very confident in his ability to draw faces as nearly all the illustrations show the children from the back, the side, or too far away to see the faces properly. There is a beautiful and very detailed illustration of the parrot at the end of chapter 25 though!

The Secret Island by Enid Blyton

I adored The Secret Island, it had everything a child would find exciting; running away, hiding, an island, self sufficiency, danger. The children were barely ten years old and they could catch and gut fish, get cows to swim, build willow houses, you name it.

Looking back now I do wonder about a number of things . . . . . . . what were the lavatorial arrangements? One assumes a small latrine, but it is never mentioned. When the children pack all the provisions in the hollow tree they put in a sack of potatoes, a wooden plank, all sorts of things, but no loo roll – and they live on the island for ages on one bar of soap and two roller towels and then the soap runs out! Horrors! Not even a teeny bottle of anti-bacterial handgel, and with all the fish gutting too. And while they bathe in the lake all through the summer, there is no mention of the washing arrangements in the winter. Best to pass over that one I think.

Anyway, as a child you don’t think about that sort of thing, you just see the charm of a life without parents telling you what to do, where the sun shines nearly all the time (where exactly in the UK was this island?!) and no-one gets ill or has a huge tantrum or points out inconvenient things like lack of loo roll.

It is an astonishingly perfect island. Not only does it have a spring for fresh water, it has a grassy area for the cow, caves for the winter, a willow copse to make the house, a seemingly never-ending supply of fish, and even wild raspberries. The children are also pretty perfect. There is one minor hiccup when Nora lets the hens escape and the others are a teensy bit cross with her, but there are none of the usual fights and fallings out that most ten year olds experience on a daily basis. Jack, who is firm but fair in the best tradition of Blyton’s head boys, is a sort of miniature adult with quite extraordinary intelligence, patience and leadership skills. Just occasionally, I wish he would say something really rude, like damn, or have a fist fight with Mike over the last basket of mushrooms.

As is usual with Enid Blyton the gender roles are rigidly defined; the boys catch fish and milk cows and the girls cook and sew and wash up the crockery. It all seems to run like clockwork, and of course there is the obligatory happy ending which is really quite touching when Jack becomes part of the family. Even on my first reading though I remember thinking that it was a tad risky to adopt a child one had only met a couple of hours ago. Luckily Jack is a decent chap so it all turns out perfectly.

I think it’s by far the best of Blyton’s ‘Secret’ series and I still enjoy a quick gallop through it occasionally.

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The first book in this fascinating true series about a pioneer existence as told by a young girl who lived it. I’ll get through all of them eventually on here, but will start with the first.

The book is set in the 1870s; Laura is five and lives with her parents, Pa and Ma, her older sister Mary and her baby sister Carrie, in a log cabin in the seemingly endless and uninhabited woods of Wisconsin, far from any kind of society and entirely dependent on themselves for everything they need to live.

The contrast between Laura’s childhood and my own was so huge and yet her life was so appealing. Even as a small girl I was intrigued by the family’s self sufficiency and their skill at so many jobs which we don’t do, like pig slaughtering, smoking meat, making bags out of buckskin, cheese making . . . the list is endless. I wouldn’t actually have wanted to do many of these jobs but learning about them made me feel I could if I had to!

Reading back now, as I often do, the seemingly idyllic life is coloured with considerations which didn’t occur to me as a girl, just as they wouldn’t have occurred to Laura. The loneliness of a life where you rarely saw anyone other than the immediate family; Laura and her sister Mary had only each other for company. The constant heavy work undertaken by Ma just to keep the home going, along with the needs of three small children and no domestic appliances! The dangers faced by Pa whenever he went off hunting in the woods, the deep cold in the winter, and the lack of any kind of medical care should any of the family fall ill, or during childbirth.

Instead, reading as a child, you get a palpable sense of the security that her family life gave Laura, and the anticipation as the highlights of a life governed by the seasons come round, such as butchering time, Christmas, and ‘sugaring off’ when the maple sap rises. The excitement when something out of the ordinary occurs seems heightened by the contrast to the daily grind, and you feel this sense of occasion at the dance given by Laura’s grandparents to celebrate ‘sugaring off’. Laura is brilliant at describing small details, the sort of things we all remember as children. The feeling of space and brightness at her grandparents’ big house, the tiff with her cousin about whose baby is the prettiest, the crunch of the maple sugar, the aunts hauling at each other’s corsets when they dress for the dance. Laura’s gentle but nevertheless heartfelt rivalry with the good-as-gold Mary is also beautifully portrayed and something any child with siblings can instantly relate to.

Laura’s enjoyment at what we would consider to be fairly mundane things, like frost patterns on the window and playing with paper dolls, was infectious. I actually wanted to own a corn cob doll like hers, and at one stage tried to cut out some paper dolls but the results were clearly not in Ma’s league. And I wouldn’t have been very happy with a Christmas stocking containing just a pair of mittens and a candy cane, that’s for sure, although at the same time there was an undefinable feeling of admiration tinged with envy at a life so simple and uncluttered! There were few possessions but a common and constant purpose to life which came across in a hugely positive way.

The Garth Williams illustrations are wonderful, nearly all of people busily occupied, with very effective facial expressions. One of my favourites is picture of Grandpa, James and George on their sled having just inadvertently collected a pig on their way down the slope. I would have loved to see the pig’s expression too but unfortunately you can only see its backside. Pig expressions are probably more tricky.

Little House in the Big Woods is a particularly detailed window onto a vanished way of life; it’s a wonderful, gently meandering book in which nothing particularly major happens but in which the mundane and everyday is made interesting and exciting.

If you haven’t read it, whatever your age, go and read it!

If you have read it, do add your thoughts on it below . . . .