Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
At that moment the first snowflakes reached them.
Grey, ghostly tiny figures of skaters making for the shore
disappeared. The hills on the other side of the lake vanished. The Beckfoot promontory was gone. Far up the lake a patch of sunshine showed on the tops of the snow mountains. A second later even the mountains had disappeared. Dick and Dorothea on their sledge, with the sail bellying out in front of them, and the little yellow quarantine flag flying straight out before the masthead, were alone in a thick cloud of driving, hurrying snow. They could see nothing at all but snowflakes and a few yards of ice sliding away beneath them as the big wind that had come with the snow drove them up the lake like a dead leaf.
‘Where are we now?’ said Dorothea.
‘Hang on,’ said Dick. ‘Lie as flat as you can. I don’t believe John’s sledge ever went faster. Just listen to it.’
And the little sledge, roaring as it rushed over the ice, flew northwards into the storm.
commentary: I loved the Swallows and Amazons books for their sailing and their idealized summer holidays, but still this one – with no sailing at all – was and still is my favourite. The feel of winter on the lake is wonderfully well done, and the final section, starting above, where Dick and Dorothea take their sledgeboat along the lake is a most exciting adventure. Because of a misunderstanding, they have started on an expedition to the ‘North Pole’- the furthermost point along the ice – on a day with catastrophically bad weather, a day for staying in. They are determined to keep up with the Swallows and Amazons (assuming they have gone on ahead) – they are brave, but not sensible, and even though death-by-ice seemed unlikely, I was as nervous as Uncle Jim about the outcome.
Sadly Nancy – best of all the children – has mumps during this book, so doesn’t feature as much as I would like, although it is her illness that stops the children from going back to school, to their great delight. As ever, Ransome’s own illustrations are hard to beat, and there is this quite wonderful note on one of them:
Winter Holiday has codes, the Fram, the igloo and the usual obsession with getting hold of milk ready for endless tea-drinking (not very piratical in my view…). I was surprised to read somewhere recently a claim that there are no jokes in the books: this is nonsense. They are quietly funny and witty throughout, and Ransome achieves the feat of making us understand a little more than the children about the adults’ feelings. That ability is also used for purposes other than to make you laugh: in Swallowdale, there are two tremendously touching and understated moments. One is a memory of a long-ago adventure with the Amazons’ (presumably dead) father, and the other concerns the ability of the Great Aunt to make the Amazons’ mother cry.
There is every reason why these books have lasted so long, despite so many dismissive remarks about them.
I had terrific fun finding suitable sledge pictures on Flickr – photo from an Australian Antarctic Expedition, illo from a book called Children of the Arctic, and that very elegant lady with her baby in St Moritz, from the Dutch National Archives. (The Swallows do have a baby sister, who changes names between books from Vicky to Bridget, so that could be her.) The Dutch for ‘pram on sledge’ is, apparently, ‘Kinderwagen als slee.’
The first book, Swallows and Amazons, is here on the blog.