In Which Our Heroine Babbles On At Too Much Length On Swallows and Amazons

25 June 2004

Mark does not know whom he took to "Pirates of Penzance" last night. Mild-mannered M'ris, that part he knows. But little did he know that lurking under her harmless exterior was one who was once a fearsome pirate, scourge of the waves, terror of the seas.

This was when I lived in Kansas, of course.

Perhaps I'd better back up.

Jo Walton was talking about identifying with characters, and in the comments is a mention of Arthur Ransome books. Ohhhhhh my. I don't think I've ever talked about Swallows and Amazons much here, but it's one of the most important books of my late childhood -- I think the last important children's book of my literary childhood.

My folks had moved down to Lawrence, Kansas, for my dad's job, and it was not a particularly good thing for them. One of my friends had a mother who opined that my folks had "never really given Lawrence a chance." I can't speak to that for sure. I was a kid. I do know for a fact that that particular person never invited my parents to do anything, never a barbecue or dinner out, never even asked my mom in for a cup of coffee when she picked me up or dropped me off. And I think it takes a lot of damn gall to criticize someone else's unhappiness, especially to their eleven-year-old. Hmm. Apparently I still have some bitterness towards this woman. My other friends' mothers that year were people to me, people who talked to me sensibly; this woman never talked to me except to shoot her mouth off about how wrong my folks were to move back to Omaha at the end of the year.

For the record, though, I don't think it was my folks' fault that they were unhappy in Lawrence. I have dim memories that my dad's promotion was not nearly as promoting as it had been made out to be, that there were back-stabbing office politics all over the place. I have quite firm memories that everything in the entire town was connected to KU somehow, even if only emotionally, and that we were not. I have quite firm memories, too, of how very long the drive was from Lawrence up here, to Grandma and Grandpa's in the Cities, to the aunts and uncles and cousins and friends. I remember sitting with my mother and crying after church because the churches in our denomination were such miserable places to be. It was the wrong place for my folks to be. It was not their home. With this, I can empathize, and how.

But for me, that year was a revelation. I had new places I could ramble -- by myself, even, since I was old enough to go out by myself for a walk or be dropped off downtown at the library or the bookstore. I had teachers who taught, who not only knew how but were allowed. (In Ralston, that took a big fight, when it could happen at all.) And more than that, I had friends who read books. On their own. Without prompting. For the fun of it. Sometimes they read books I hadn't read before, and they would lend them to me.

One of those books was Swallows and Amazons.

Quite early in the year, I stuck like burrs with Hilary and Becca. Hilary passed along Swallows and Amazons, and while I was devouring the rest of the series, I insisted that Becca should read it, too. It was the last non-fantastic series to really capture my heart until I was grown up and married and met up with Peter Whimsy and Bernie Rhodenbarr. I loved it. All three of us did. The children in it had adventures, but they were the kinds of adventures we could have, too...sort of. We couldn't do much sailing in the middle of Kansas, but wandering around woods playing explorers and pirates, that we could do. And the props were practical: pocket knives, bottles of lemonade and iced tea, chocolate wrapped in foil, little flags, maps. And there were codes in the books -- we adapted semaphore for our own use -- and we could make references to them without sounding like total nutjobs.

The other girls in our class were pretty fixated on teeny-bopper-cool. The New Kids On the Block were at the height of their popularity, and one of our classmates had a "come as your favorite New Kid" party. It was very exclusive, of course, because there were only five New Kids, and because the point was to be exclusive. None of us cared about all that, but we weren't really at an age where we wanted to play with toys, either. When we moved to Kansas, we packed up my toybox, and I never unpacked it. It just...wasn't that time any more.

We weren't done with imagination games, though, and no one had introduced us to role-playing games, and even if they had, I think there would have been some parental objections. Besides that, role-playing games (at least in the early phases) don't involve tromping around the woods, and tromping around the woods was crucial. Hilary's family lived out on an acreage. There was a small wooded area left behind our grade school, in Becca's (and later Erin's) subdivision, and there was a large wooded park with streams just down the street from my house. We were all about tromping around the woods.

So I don't remember how exactly it got decided, but we started to play Swallows and Amazons in earnest. There were enough girl characters, but it wasn't a girly book; most of the characters, as I reread the books now, are pretty sexless, even in the later books when inexorable math tells you they really can't be any more. Both of the family cooks are girls, but they're also both second children, and my grade-school brain assumed that this was a matter of birth order rather than gender: you can't tell me that if Nancy Blackett had had a little brother instead of Peggy, she'd have tamely submitted to doing the washing up for him.

So we each picked a character and acted as though the books were a given and we were going on to further adventures. The character choice was really a no-brainer. I was Captain Nancy, head Amazon pirate, biggest of the lot (true -- I was already adult-sized at eleven, and nearing adult-shaped as well), oldest of the lot (actually I was the youngest), and most likely to fling herself whole cloth and quite deliberately into their pretend games. Hilary was Peggy, the younger of the two Amazon pirates, and I called her Peggy so much that in my head the sentence was "Peggy was Peggy." Scared of thunderstorms but otherwise ready for an adventure; fairly good head on her shoulders. Before I reread the books, I was trying to remember why Becca was Susan, because Susan (first mate of the Swallow explorers) was the practical one, and Becca could ruin Minute Rice twice in a row, never had a working watch, always was the one to find the poison ivy. But Susan was a worrier, which Bec also was, and Susan was the one most likely to forget what she was supposed to be playing at, and Susan was the one most concerned with creature comforts. So Becca was Susan.

After several months and adventures, we decided that Erin was all right, too, and I don't remember how she got asked in or whether she asked to be let in on our secret. But she was Able-Seaman Titty of the Swallows, the youngest and smallest and dreamiest of the character. (Yes, the character's name was Titty; these books were written in Britain in the 1930s. Yes, we snickered up our sleeves at it; we didn't live in Britain in the 1930s.) Erin was a social chameleon, not a born geek like the rest of us. She could fit in with the smart kids but was also invited to the New Kids On the Block party early in the year and could talk to pretty much anyone in our class. Erin was my first experience with a "popular" kid who actually deserved to be popular. She was smart and funny and genuinely nice. And she wanted to be a Swallow? We were okay with that.

She might have asked to be let in, because it was clear we were up to something. At least two of our other classmates tried to guess and were rebuffed. Once when it came up at Girl Scouts, my mom tried to tell me that it would not be a popular thing with the other kids if we were cliquey. I think I blinked at her in bafflement and then agreed and went on with my life. I already felt that I was in the middle of cliques that were excluding me that forming our own really didn't seem like a bad idea, especially since ours did something. And I don't regret it.

We had the expedition to the South Pole, and through the forests of the Amazon, and I don't even remember what other expeditions we had. But we did a lot. It was our secret, and it was a good one. In The Secret Country, when Laura swears to Ted that as she is a bearer of their Secret, she is telling him the truth, I stuck my thumb in the book and closed my eyes for a minute with the remembering of it. I had played Narnia and all kinds of other imagination games when I was younger, but Swallows and Amazons when I was eleven: that was a true, good secret.

We did other things together, of course. We took turns playing the piano when we were at my house or Hilary's. We played cards and Tetris and Sorry and loafed around reading in each other's quiet company. It was the first time I could just read and be with people comfortably outside my own family. That was something. It was also the first time I could work on stories in front of people, and the only time they would bother me is if they felt I hadn't written enough for them to read yet. I wrote my first novel that year. It was awful and filled with sailboats I knew nothing about, but it was mine, and all of them read it and proclaimed their love for it. All of them but particularly Peggy, who is still my sister Peggy after all this time and distance. Becca adored me, and I adored Bec; we were true, good friends. But Peggy was Peggy, and it was different. Peggy was my first fan, I think.

I've reread a bunch of the books lately -- Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post, Secret Water, and The Picts and the Martyrs. And I found the twelfth book, the holy grail, the one we could never find. On Thursday when Kev was here, we were at Rice Paper and Sebastian Joe's, and I thought we could check out Wild Rumpus. I'd never been there, and my cat allergies are not as strong as Timprov's, so going without him the first time was a good thing, to see how cattish it was. And while we were there, I thought I might as well check for Great Northern?, a book I have wanted for fifteen years. I knew it wouldn't be there, but I thought I'd check anyway. For the first time in almost fifteen years, I stood there and thought, "Well, S.M.T." Which of course is "Shiver my timbers."

Is it all very cheesy? Of course it is. And I'm not ashamed of it a bit. I was 11, and I loved these books, and now that I'm 25, I still love them. And I grew back out of being ashamed of loving things somewhere along the way, and I'm glad. It upsets me when people disavow their old loves, human or literary or any other flavor. I'm not going to go tromping around the woods calling lemonade "grog" this weekend, but it was a good thing to do then. And it was certainly no sillier than having a secret handshake and a hazing ritual.

Even almost 15 years later, I can't sort out my reactions to these books from the way we were. I can't read Peggy's lines without hearing Peggy or Susan's without hearing Becca or Titty's without hearing Erin. And when I read about Nancy doing things, it's a hundred or a thousand times more of an identification than I have with any other character. For no other character is it "I" doing these things in my head, even when I'm writing in the first person. I spent a year identifying myself conscious and specifically with Nancy, and there are enough remnants of that in my head that Nancy is "me" even when she's doing things I wouldn't do or would hate doing.

I notice more now that Arthur Ransome fairly clearly wants to spend more time on the younger characters. I don't know if I'd say he cares more or wants us to care more about them, but he certainly is biased towards them. That means Titty and Roger and the D's, two more siblings brought in later, who seem to be extraneous in my adult authorial viewpoint. If Arthur Ransome was setting me up to "identify" with someone, if he was saying that it was a book with characters a child could "identify" with, he would have picked Titty. But I was not her. I notice, too, that I have associations that are entirely extratextual and entirely firm: that the siblings take emotional care of each other, for example. They're not shown with grave emotional difficulties in these books. That's not the kind of books they are. Nor is it implied, really; a lot of intense emotional situations are entirely just left out, with all the personality traits that go with them. But I have the impression that I know how these kids relate more than I do, because of how we were.

I also have a tendency to gloss over the boys' actions, and it may be that John is boring and Roger is silly and no one else really matters. But I think it might also be that we didn't have any boys who were Swallows and Amazons (well, Swallows, at least) with us. In fact, it was one of my most boyless years ever. There were a couple of boys in my class with whom I was kind of buddies -- when we were stuck inside for rainy day recesses, I would play cards with the boys while the other girls in the homeroom danced to New Kids on the Block tapes. (Erin went back and forth between the two activities. Becca and Peg were in the other homeroom.) There was a family of boys near Peggy's house that seemed all right, but we didn't actually do anything with them. And there was Hilary's brother, Rob.

I didn't realize I had a crush on Rob at the time until I was thinking about it a few years ago, and it dawned on me that my internal and external reactions really only pointed in one direction. But at the time, a crush was what I had on Jim Buchanan, period and full stop. And I didn't feel nearly that way about Hilary's brother -- Jim had been my best buddy since we were five years old. If one of us had been radioactive, we both would have glowed in the dark. We had just spent that much time together. Obviously no one else was going to be like Jim, ever. (I wonder now how long I would have just assumed that that was the only way it could be, if Jim and I hadn't had our rough patch in junior high.) But Rob was older, smart and argumentative and pedantic, and his hair always looked a little messy, and whaddaya know, apparently I had a type already at eleven years old.

I don't know if I would have told Peggy if I had realized that I had a crush on her brother in the first place. I might have realized it was weird and kept my mouth shut. Sometimes I had that much sense. Anyway, we never did anything Swallows-and-Amazons-ish with Rob. We just argued with him when we were at their house. Where we was mostly me, because Becca didn't like arguing and Erin was only sporadically interested and Peggy could argue with him any time she wanted. We did go to "The Pirates of Penzance" with him, though, because their mom took us.

Ahhhh, the full circles. They're everywhere. It was at a college a ways away...I don't know how far away. Neither too near nor too far. Maybe it was Emporia. That would have been a laugh, if it was Kev's alma mater. Anyway, we went and were entranced. We were a singing bunch of little girls anyway, but we belted out the tunes from "Pirates" at the drop of a hat from then on out. Peggy and I were particularly fond of "With cat-like tread" and "Pour oh pour the pirate sherry," and I remember warbling more than once that it is, it is a glorious thing to be a pirate king. We also did the song where the sisters "talk about the weather," and proclaimed that a policeman's lot is not a happy one (happy one).

What was your childhood like, M'ris? Oh, lots of British books and Gilbert and Sullivan....

(Incidentally, last night's performance of "The Pirates of Penzance" was wonderful fun. I think the Minnesota references are exactly the sort of contemporary references Gilbert and Sullivan liked themselves, and were well done. And having the pirates enter swinging themselves off the balconies and so on -- oh, my heart was thoroughly captured.)

We also sung Girl Scout songs, and the songs from the Ransome books for which we could find tunes, and whatever else came to mind. School choir songs, whatever. We could manage three part harmony when we knew three parts, plus Becca, who was an enthusiastic but wandering singer. And our parents didn't yell at us to settle down and stop that racket, though they approved of us going out into the woods to make it, too. We had remarkably tolerant parents that year. Someone was always sleeping over at someone else's house, or else was coming over after school, and we always would pack enough for a week when we were staying over a night, mostly books.

I keep wandering around my sixth grade year, but what I mean is to get at what we were like and what these books were to us. They were a freedom, I think. They were unlike, wholly unlike, the prefab boy band crushes that occupied our classmates. That was part of the appeal. They were a bit obscure, which made them more surely ours. And they had different levels of pretending. Two of the books in the series, Peter Duck and Missee Lee, can't be understood to have happened the way the rest of the books did, not in the main fictional universe of the series. They were fictions within the fiction. I think that worked well for us, that there were the books themselves, and then there was the way the Swallows and the Amazons pretended things within the books, and then there were the books that went beyond that and presented what they pretended as its own reality. Adding another layer after that seemed only natural. It seemed like the right thing to do.

All sorts of things have popped into my head on the reread, class issues I never would have noticed or understood, things that are there and I didn't see them, things that aren't there and I didn't miss them. But none of that can ruin these books for me. They are stuck in here in my head.

I don't know if anybody cares about all this but me and Peggy and Becca. But I've talked to them in the last year. They still do. I think this was my practice for fandom, having a small intense core of people who were a little bit unreasonable about some books they had in common. It was good practice.

Tomorrow morning we're fetching Michelle and Scott and heading up to Duluth for Marte's wedding. I'm going to save all my picture posting for after that and do it in one big bunch. And when I come back, I'll talk about some of the questions you asked me (there's still time) and other things than my sixth grade year and Arthur Ransome's books and how I can't separate the two. It was just time, I guess.

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