“Cat!” my tablemates called out that day. (I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know if she spells it with a C or a K. This was long before Katniss, though.) I’d never met her—only heard about the young woman who read as much as she knit. And there she was in the flesh, both a bag of knitting and a book tucked under her arm.
I was introduced. It was pointed out that we have daughters the same age. We looked each other up and down. Me, I’m very much a middle-aged-Lutheran kind of Mom. I knit baby hats in sensible wool—not very imaginative ones, at that. Cat…well, she’s a much younger-gypsy kind of Mom, complete with tattoos and things woven into her hair. She was knitting a complicated lace tank top from a linen-hemp blend, which she was designing as she knit. It was gorgeous. She was absolutely as amazing as her reputation. Her spirit filled the room and found its way into the nooks and crannies of yarn and conversation.
Inevitably, we talked kids’ books. “Have you read…?” And “Don’t you love….?” She knit as fast as she talked. I had to stop knitting just to keep up my end of the conversation. And then she said the words that changed our family’s reading life for good. “Of course, you love Swallows and Amazons….”
I’d never heard of Swallows and Amazons. Cat was incredulous. After she gasped and sputtered and finished knitting the row she was on, she spent the next twenty minutes booktalking the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome with more passion than I have ever heard anyone talk about a book or series. At one point, she stood on a chair gesticulating into the sails (that weren’t there) of the yarn store’s (non-existent) mast as she told me the basic stories of the Walker and Blackett children.
The first book, Swallows and Amazons, published in 1930, tells the story of John, Susan, Titty, and Roger Walker. The Walker family (sans Daddy, who is out to sea) is staying at a farm in England’s lake district during school holidays. The four siblings (ages 7ish-14ish) are allowed to sail a small dinghy named Swallow across the bay and camp and explore a deserted island. (Yes, without adults.) It is on this adventure that they meet Nancy and Peggy Blackett, self-described pirates from the other end of the bay. Quotidian and Astounding Adventures abound and Great Friendships ensue.
Cat refused to go into the rest of the series until I’d read the first two books, which she insisted I buy immediately. She walked me to the bookstore, handed them to me (they stock them, I learned, because she hand sells them), and took me to the cash register to ring them up. Then, without me asking, she ordered the next six in the series for me.
Cat grew up on a houseboat. Their family’s entertainment largely consisted of reading the Swallows and Amazons series out loud, I believe. She’d been thoroughly “brought up” on the books and had read through the series countless times. Eight years later, I can say we’ve been through the series a number of times, as well—some books more than others. In the early years I read them around campfires and by flashlights in tents while we were on vacation. Our kids often remember places by which Swallows and Amazons book we read when we were there. We inhaled the first two books on a camping trip on the North Shore of Lake Superior the week after I’d purchased the books—our kids were nine and three. On a trip to Montana the next summer we read Peter Duck in Paradise Valley during a windstorm. We first read We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea when we visited the tall ships in Duluth, Minnesota. Winter Holiday was read the Christmas my daughter had pneumonia and we were stranded at home. The books in this series have been a major part of our family life.
They are not easy books to read aloud. They’re filled with sailing terminology, British dialects, and long descriptions. When we found that Gabriel Woolf had recorded them as a labor of love, we ordered them all on CDs. As the primary reader, I cannot recommend the audio-version by Mr. Woolf enough. He’s an actor—he’s got voices! And it is so very clear he adores the books—possibly as much as Cat.
I only saw Cat a few times that summer—I imagine she is on some fantastic adventure now. The last time I saw her, she’d added to her tattoos. The flags of the Swallows and Amazons are now permanently inked into her right shoulder. “I read them all again after I told you about them,” she said.
I’m not a tattoo person, myself…but if I were to get one, I’d look hard at the same flags.