More innocent times, more innocent places: extreme charm without saccharine
I had not encountered Swedish author Astrid Lindgren as a child (Pippi Longstocking) and I have no idea why she fell below my radar (or parental radar) at the time that I would surely have loved her. Nonetheless, I was delighted to read the reissued Seacrow Island after hearing Lindgren’s daughter, Karen, (for whom Pippi was created) talk about her mother.
Seacrow Island has left me with an extreme sense of loss that I didn’t read it in-the-day of childhood. Published in 1964 I can see its connection to childrens’ writing I was devoted to – Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, as there is a lot of messing about in boats, but Lindgren, writing this in the 60s not the 30s, would have had an immediate allure for me (had I found it) because she was writing from such a different world, and the exoticism would have appealed – the Stockholm Archipelago.
It is her characters and setting which most enchanted me – though the writing itself is wonderful, here in an unobtrusive translation by Evelyn Ramsden, and the ‘storyline’ believeable and with the right amount of drama, page turn, and rest-and-look-around-you – it was the island itself I fell in love with (like her central characters). And I also utterly surrendered to the wayward charms of her characters, particularly the triumvirate of the three youngest ones, Pelle, Tjorven and Stina.
The Melkerson family, who are headed by an accident prone, not quite practical father, Melker, an author, have rented an unseen cottage on a far island, Seacrow, for the summer. ‘Mother’ to the family is Melker’s beautiful, strong daughter Malin, aged 19, who had to assume this role when her youngest brother Pelle, now 7, was born, as their mother died in childbirth. Malin, always being fallen in love with by besotted youths and men, also has to manage and mother Johan and Niklas, 13 and 12, her middle brothers, similar and different in nature – one more practical and steady, the other more of a reflective dreamer.
Seacrow is a tight knit community, invaded in the summer months by tourists renting cottages.
There are also resident island children and other ‘incomers’. The most important of these are the three children of the local shopkeeper. Teddy and Freddy, 13 and 12 are exact matches in age, temperament and adventurousness to Johan and Niklas, except, as island dwellers they are far stronger, tougher and more resilient in such matters as sailing boats, fishing and trekking than the city-dwelling Melker boys.
The four almost adolescents have their adventure companions; Malin, apart from keeping every one together has her tribe of wannabe swains, but the real central characters are the youngest ones.
Pelle Melker is a little like Dickon in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, in that he has a special relationship with animals of all kinds. He is exceedingly tender–hearted and cannot even bear to disturb the wasps from nesting in the eaves of their holiday cottage. Nor can he go fishing, as he is too empathetic to put worms on hooks. Pelle is enchanting, and a very strong minded little boy because of his tender regard for the suffering of others.
Perhaps the most memorable character however is bossy, obstreperous, fiendishly precocious, warm-hearted, volatile Tjorven. She is the youngest child of the shopkeepers, Teddy and Freddy’s little sister, Pelle’s contemporary.
She looked like a well-fed sausage…round and wholesome. The face which was visible under the raincoat was, as far as he could see through the smoke, a particularly clear, charming child’s face, broad and good-humoured with a pair of bright, inquiring eyes. She had the enormous dog with her, which seemed even more colossal indoors than out. He seemed to fill the whole kitchen
And the final child of great note and uniqueness is dreamy Stina, Tjorvald’s great friend and nemesis, aged 5. The two little girls jealously vie for ownership of Pelle, and also jealously vie for ownership of, and friendship with, a variety of animals – a raven, a lamb, dogs and puppies, a rabbit and, most valued of all, a rescued baby seal.
Little Stina, who has managed to lose all her front milk-teeth simultaneously, presenting the world with a perfectly gummy smile, is a natural story-teller, obsessed with myths and fairy tales, and more than half-convinced all the tales are true. There is much humour to be had from this. Frogs feature delightfully.
This is an utterly enchanting book – it needs no fantasy, no magic, no superpowers – the enchantment is firmly set in the reality of small island life in the far North. Its reality also means that things don’t always go well, there can be danger, sorrow, anger, loss, as well as fun, games and happiness
Despite the fact that the central three characters are between 5 and 7, I would surmise this is most suitable for children 8-11. Boys and girls will find characters to identify with and there is an effortless, rather than a tickboxy, avoidance of gender stereotyping, though I would suggest this comes from Lindgren’s ability to see each child as unique and complex, rather than a strapped on PC consciousness
If I HAD to pick a favourite, it would probably be lovable and annoying, bossy, sassy little Tjorvald. I suspect a lot of little girls (not to mention grown women) will be able to identify with this spirited little girl. But choosing between any of the youngest is impossible.
I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK
PS I know some of the readers of this blog have extremely sensitive dispositions, so, hopefully this won’t be regarded as any kind of spoiler, but I do want to reassure you than fur-traders and the like do NOT make any kind of appearance within these pages. All Seacrow Islanders seem to be remarkably united in their love of animals, tame or wild, and live in harmony with the creatures gambolling through these pages. Except, perhaps for herrings, which seal-pups eat a lot of . Perhaps tender-hearted herringophiles may find this book a bit upsetting. Though rest assured, Pelle will also empathise with your fishy friends.