Book review

Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome (1932)

A Swallows and Amazons book. Who are the Swallows and Amazons? I'll tell you. The Swallow and the Amazon are two sailing boats. First, there is just the Amazon which is kept in a boathouse on the edge of a beautiful lake. She is crewed by the Terror of the High Seas, Captain Nancy, and her sister, Peggy, first mate. Nancy's real name is Ruth, but you can't be a pirate if your name is Ruth because everyone knows that all pirates are ruthless. Nancy and Peggy are pretty good sailors and spend their summers adventuring on the lake and occupying the little island, which later becomes known as Wild Cat Island.

Then, the four Walker children visit the Lake District for a holiday and are allowed to borrow a sailing boat, the Swallow. John, Susan, Titty and Roger are also jolly good sailors and the Swallows and the Amazons become firm friends. Partly, this friendship is sealed when the Swallows and Amazons join forces to launch a pirate attack on the Amazons' Uncle Jim who lives in a houseboat on the lake. If he wanted a quiet life, he doesn't get it, not with the Swallows and Amazons around!

Well, if you want to know about those exploits, you should read Swallows and Amazons, which is a brilliant summer holiday book. But if you want to visit a desert island in the Caribbean and dig up a real chest of pirate treasure, you should read Peter Duck.

Now, in Peter Duck we meet all these characters again, the Swallows and the Amazons and Uncle Jim. Everyone should have an Uncle Jim! In need of an adventure himself, he acquires a beautiful schooner, which he names the Wild Cat. He fits her out in Lowestoft harbour, fills her up with enough supplies to take the vessel half way round the world, and then sends for the Swallows and Amazons to crew her. They need one more adult to help man the ship, and here we meet Peter Duck:

Peter Duck was sitting on a bollard on the north quay of Lowestoft Inner Harbour, smoking his pipe in the midday sunshine and looking down at a little, green, two-masted schooner that was tied up there while making ready for sea. He was an old sailor with a fringe of white beard round a face that was as brown and wrinkled as a walnut. He had sailed in the clipper ships racing home with tea from China. He had sailed in the wool ships from Australia. He had been round the Horn again and again and knew it, as he used to say, as well as he knew the crook of his own thumb. But for a long time now he had left the sea.

Old though he is, Peter Duck is yearning to sail 'blue water' one more time, and when he hears that the Wild Cat is a crew member short, he volunteers his services. He is, of course, perfect for the job, and the Swallows and Amazons soon discover that Peter Duck can spin a good yarn, with more than a grain of truth to it! There's a story about Peter Duck marooned, as a young boy, on a desert island. An unwilling witness to pirates burying a mysterious chest . Only Peter Duck knows where the chest is, and he is not going to bother to dig it up:

'I don't care who digs up that bag so long as Black Jake don't,' he said. 'But whatever it is it's best let lie. You don't want it, not with a tidy little schooner like this fit to take you anywheres. I don't want it, not with my old wherry that'll last my time and a bit more.'

Now it seems that Peter Duck is shadowed by the distinctly unattractive Black Jake, who is also making ready for a sea voyage out of Lowestoft harbour. Wherever Peter Duck goes, Black Jake is certain to go too. Black Jake has heard Peter Duck's yarn and is determined to find out from Peter Duck exactly where this 'buried treasure' is!

The scene is set for a hair-raising chase across the Atlantic. Black Jake is a terrifying opponent. His schooner, the Viper, is faster than Wild Cat, and Black Jake will stop at nothing to get his hands on the treasure! And the Wild Cat has more than just the Viper to deal with on her voyage. The weather also plays a part in this story.

If you want to know whether there really is any treasure on Peter Duck's desert island, and what happens to Black Jake and the Viper you will have to read this book for yourself. I think you will enjoy it, almost as much as if you were actually there yourself!

What can I read next?

Arthur Ransome has written twelve books, many of them feature the Swallows and Amazons, and all are equally enthralling. Most of the stories are about the highly imaginative games that the children play during their long holidays. Of course, they enjoy a freedom that you can only dream about. But with the freedom comes responsibility - these children are competent sailors and can make a camp practically anywhere. If they get themselves into a mess, they can get themselves out of it. Try one and see for yourself. If you can't get hold of Peter Duck, have a look at another one:

  • Swallows and Amazons
  • Swallowdale
  • Peter Duck
  • Winter Holiday
  • Coot Club
  • Pigeon Post
  • We Didn't Mean to go to Sea
  • Secret Water
  • The Big Six
  • Missee Lee
  • The Picts and the Martyrs
  • Great Northern?

I think you might also enjoy Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence:

Or you could have a look at this one set during the Second World War by Nina Bawden:

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