Winter Holiday is the fourth book in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, and the first one not set during summer vacation. In this adventure, the Walker kids (John, Susan, Titty, and Roger) and the Blackett girls (Nancy and Peggy) are joined by a third set of siblings - Dick and Dorothea Callum, known as the D’s. This time, instead of sailing to Wild Cat Island or setting up camp in Swallowdale, these allied groups are preparing themselves for a trip to the North Pole. There is just one problem - Nancy, the usual leader of the group’s expeditions, has the mumps, and they must do without her spirited guidance.
The most impressive thing about this series is the way Ransome is consistently able to reinvent the Lake District setting to make it seem new for each adventure. What I particularly enjoy is the fact that each reinvention comes as a result of everyday events in the kids’ lives. In Swallows and Amazons, the two groups meet in the first place because they both discover the same island. In Swallowdale, they wreck the Swallow, which forces them to scout out a place to camp that can be reached on foot. Now, in Winter Holiday, it’s the winter weather that requires them to re-imagine their tropical paradise as the site of an arctic expedition. Ransome totally immerses the reader in each new world he creates, and this arctic setting is no exception. I was happy to start thinking of Wild Cat Island as Spitzbergen, and Captain Flint’s houseboat as The Fram, and I loved the way the kids adjusted their make-believe to suit the ice on the lake and the many skaters out on the water enjoying it.
Another wonderful aspect of this book is the shift in point of view from the previous stories. In the early books of the series, the reader sees almost everything from the perspective of the Walkers, as they learn from Nancy and Peggy how to become real sailors. By introducing Dick and Dorothea, city kids with no real camping or sailing experience, the reader gets to see the familiar world of the Swallows and Amazons through fresh new eyes. Dick’s scientific interests, especially in astronomy, and Dorothea’s tendency to romanticize everything and turn it into literature, also add further depth to the books, and provide more opportunities for more types of kids to connect with them. It’s also just exciting to see regular kids getting to do all the exciting things the Swallows and Amazons do. I think kids always get a kick out of living vicariously through fictitious people who are similar to them.
Finally, I think this book does a great job of really humanizing Susan. All along, she has been the best behaved child of them all, serving as surrogate mother and keeper of the peace. In Winter Holiday, though, we finally see her resolve waver a little bit, as even she is overcome by the fun of the arctic exploration. There is much more sneaking out at night and disregarding adult rules and warnings in this book than in the others, and it’s gratifying to see that Susan isn’t just a goody two shoes. It’s also nice to see minor rule-breaking that doesn’t result in disaster, and for which the kids always make amends.
After Peter Duck’s strange departure from Ransome’s normal storytelling style, I worried that Winter Holiday would be another disappointment, but I was wrong to be concerned. It was a truly great story, with all the wonderful description, character development, and suspense I have come to expect from Ransome’s excellent writing.
I borrowed Winter Holiday from my local public library.