I have to add that I was not alone in this impulse. A few days later, I went to look at my friend Mo's blog, Loving the Tasmanian Devil, and saw that she'd written a long and thoughtful post called a Happy Confluence of Winter Books about two of her favorite winter books, one of which is Carol Ryrie Brink's Winter Cottage. I had never heard of Winter Cottage and had to put it on my library list immediately.
But back to Arthur Ransome. I didn't grow up reading the Swallows and Amazons books. For those not in the know, they're a beloved series of British children's books, written mostly in the 1930s and 40s, set mostly in the Lake District of England and featuring several families of intrepid adventurers who sail and camp and have adventures. The first I heard of them was in college, when I discovered my friend and next door neighbor, Ann, reading Swallows and Amazons, the first in the series, which she did, I learned, whenever she was stressed out. Some years later, looking at her bookshelves, I found one of the later books of the series, with the inscription, “For Ann on her 23rd birthday,” which made me laugh.
Perhaps incongruously, I read my first Swallows and Amazons book in Delhi in 1994. I belonged to many libraries during that long stay, one of which was the American Embassy library, where there was a 15 rupee sale shelf. More often than I'd imagined, decent books turned up on the 15 rupee shelf, and I snatched them up. One summer day, a battered copy of Swallows and Amazons was there, and I bought it. I did not read it right then, however. I remembered Ann's use of Swallows and Amazons as comfort reading, and I saved it for when I might need it. (I knew the time would come, and it did.) In the years since then, I've read a number of the others, and along with Swallows and Amazons, my favorite is Winter Holiday.
The book involves 3 groups of siblings: the Walkers (aka the Swallows), the Blacketts (the Amazons) and the Callums (the D's) who all end up, mostly parentless (except for Mrs. Blackett), in the Lake District during their winter holiday. It is one of the coldest winters on record, and as more and more of the long lake begins to freeze, the children hope to be able to mount an expedition to the north pole (aka the end of the lake). Due to a fortunately timed case of the mumps and subsequent quarantine that keeps them at the lake for an additional month, their wish is granted.
One thing that’s appealing about the book is how well the kids take advantage of winter. They skate daily on a frozen pond and on the lake itself, they take wild sled rides down the hill onto the lake, they spend time in an igloo they’ve constructed and even manage to rescue a sheep stranded on a cliff. Eventually, they take possession of the Blackett sisters’ Uncle Jim’s houseboat that’s been frozen into the lake, renaming it the Fram, after the boat in Nansen’s arctic expedition in the 1890s, systematically eating their way through all of his stores and readying themselves for their own version of polar exploration, a trip to their own north pole, which turns out to be more than they bargained for and also the adventure that they desperately wanted.
By the end of the book, it is abundantly clear that Nancy Blackett’s pronouncement about winter that serves as the book's epigraph—“Dark at tea-time and sleeping indoors: nothing ever happens in the winter holidays.”—is absolutely false. And for those of us who may never build an igloo, enjoy a frozen houseboat or mount an expedition to any pole at all, it’s a true pleasure to go along with them.
I can’t write about Arthur Ransome without noting that he was recently the subject of a major biography—The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome—in which it turns out that he was a spy for Britain and also so close to the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution that he was nearly prosecuted for treason. I read two fascinating reviews of the book in the Guardian and in the Times of London, but I have to admit that I can't decide how much I actually want to know about his real life. Sometimes, at least, it's best to stick with the fiction.