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.
Some series are timeless like that, Moira. And part of it may be that brilliant depiction of setting. Ransome really chose his words well, I think.ReplyDelete
I think he is too easily dismissed these days, when he really did have a lot to offer.Delete
Unusually, we part company here, Moira, as I have never been able to get on with Swallows and Amazons. This does sound good, though, and I might give it a try.ReplyDelete
Oh dear Chrissie, this is a cause of some concern, I may have to rethink our entire friendship! Perhaps it's a subject we just have to avoid in future, as politics and religion would be for others.... ;)Delete
I suppose it had to happen sooner or later . . . sigh . . . but I guess all friendships have these little no-go areas . . .Delete
Yes. I'm going to bravely remind myself that you do have other good points...Delete
I've always felt that the children's books that endure are those that contain stuff that children might not immdiately get. Children don't always understand adult emotion, but coming back to the books in later years they reveal hidden depths.ReplyDelete
These older children's books do contain a lot that would send a health and safety officer into fits. My childhood was haunted by Public Information films that warned me not to go on thin ice, not to go into ponds, rivers, lakes, not to play with fire and just about anything else. It's hard to balance both sides, but I can't help thinking that kids these days have lost the freedom that I took for granted as a child.
Yes, and now as a parent I was faintly disturbed by some of the Swallows and Amazons books - that it was funny to ever so slightly deceive the parents while going into danger. But of course I loved that when young.Delete
These books must have something going for them since they are still in print and (I assume) in demand. And this one does sound very lovely. To go with what I said about the post on Swallows and Amazons, I don't think I will finish reading the books I have now so don't think I will add this type of book to the pile. The illustrations do sound nice though. We use to collect illustrated children's books (on a small scale) and still have a shelf of them.ReplyDelete
I don't know what I'd make of them if I came to them only as an adult - part of the attraction for me is remembering how much I loved them when I was young. So you're probably right to resist...Delete
Moira, I like how you often feature books filled with fun and adventure. I also like the fact that children's books, like the "Swallows and Amazons" series, are written equally for grownups.ReplyDelete
Thanks Prashant - I know not everyone shares my love for children's books, but I am still always keen to explore them.Delete
Dorothea is my favourite of all Ransome's characters. I think it's a really interesting device to introduce Dick and Dorothea so we get an outsider's perspective on the Swallows and Amazons. He shows the tensions beautifully - will they be accepted into the group or not?ReplyDelete
I was always a bit perplexed by the mumps storyline though. I had mumps aged eight and remember feeling a bit rough for a few days, then back to school, so having the bedroom fumigated and all the hoohah about sterilising messages seemed rather over the top.
Yes - and I read somewhere that the Ds were very unusual in being 'intellectuals'. The claim was that in 30s children books geeks were looked down on (as opposed to the games captain type), but Ransome treated them and their interests on a par with the others: which is nice isn't it?Delete
I never had mumps, but dreaded it after reading this book! turns out I needn't have worried then?
I like that Dorothea is imaginative but not un-sensible, and Dick is an absent-minded professor but calm in a crisis. They're also good at interacting with the local people- like the Dixons in Winter Holiday, and Jacky and Cook in The Picts and the Martyrs. The Swallows tend to avoid "natives".Delete
Mumps can very occasionally cause complications, but the current exclusion from school guidelines suggest five days, which would ruin the plot of Winter Holiday!
Yes, and Dorothea's imaginative parallel narrative of what is going on is always enjoyable, 'the fugitives on the run' etc. Good point about their ability to get on with the natives...Delete
That's so funny about mumps - my children never had it, so I have spent the past 30+ years with a completely false view of it!