Thursday, February 22, 2024

Arthur Ransome - Great Northern

Rereading Arthur Ransome's Great Northern led me to decide that it is perhaps the finest of the Swallows and Amazons stories. Yet when I read these books as a child I was not that found of it. Looking back I think that this is due to the tense final few chapters, when the Swallows, Amazons and Dick and Dorothy are pursued by multiple enemies as they seek to protect the titular birds. It is much more young adult territory than children's book.

Great Northern is the only one of Ransome's children's books to be set in Scotland. It's connections with the books set in the Norfolk Broads as the children are protecting a birds nest and eggs from an egg collector. Looking after birds was a key theme of Coot Club and the Big Six. In this sense it is quite a modern story, as egg collecting was not frowned upon in the 1940s when Great Northern was written. The children are on a sailing trip with Captain Flint, around the Western Isles (Ransome based the book on a trip to Lewis) which has been fairly uneventful. It is only on their last day, when Dick spots a pair of Great Northern's nesting that things take a turn for the excitement. The birds have never been known to nest in the British Isles and the discovery of the nest offers fame.

Dick's visit to a bird watcher turns from triumph to horror as he realises the watcher is an egg collector. A swift children's mutiny leads Flint back to the Island where the everyone embarks on a great subterfuge to avoid the collector locating the nest. As I said, there's a great chase, the children and Flint are imprisoned by the angry natives who think they are trying to scare his deer, and the birds are eventually protected. It is all very exciting, though Ransome's left politics did not prevent him relying on the autonomous power of the local laird to stop the robbery of the eggs!

There are some interesting aspects to the book. Firstly the locals speak little English, only Gaelic - with the exception of the Laird and his son. Secondly Ransome captures well the class relations on the island. Of further interest is the environmental context. Ransome, through the children, demonstrates a great empathy for nature and landscape. This is done, in this case, through the desire by all the children (though not Flint) to protect the birds. But this concern doesn't stretch to the wider environment. Take the aftermath of the picnic, when the two oldest children, John and Nancy, leave they "quickly poked their sandwich papers deep into the pear, sank their empty lemonade bottles in a small pool and set off, with empty knapsacks flapping on their backs."

Reading this sentence in 2024 really jars! The bottles are likely still there, though at least the sandwiches were wrapped in paper and not plastic. The other jarring bits are the gender roles. Ransome is usually quite good at letting his female characters take part in adventures on the same level as the boys, usually through the medium of Titty and Nancy. But once again Susan and Peggy are left to do all the household chores, especially feeding the crew - and Susan is forced to play a motherly role to her youngest brother Roger. Worrying, and bemoaning that the iodine for his cut shin is back on the boat.

Great Northern is certainly one of the best of the Ransome novels. But it is dated, and very much of its time. Despite this, Arthur Ransome's empathy for children and nature comes through and readers who enjoyed this back in their own childhood may enjoy the revisit. Younger readers perhaps deserve a little more.

Related Reviews

Ransome - We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea
Ransome - Peter Duck
Ransome - Missee Lee
Hardyment - Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk
Chambers - The Last Englishman, The double life of Arthur Ransome

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