Secret Water


I'm sad to report that re-reading Secret Water was an unexpectedly upsetting and uncomfortable experience. It used to be one of my favourites -- not right up there, but definitely in the second tier -- but I don't think I'll be able to go back to this one.

Secret Water is set in the Norfolk Broads, in a real landscape (you can look it up on Google maps) of islands and tidal mudflats. The Swallows are marooned by their parents for about a week and charged with making a proper map of the area, and this time, to her great delight, the baby of the family, Bridget, is allowed to camp with them. Bridget's presence is a real joy ("I'm old enough... I bled more than anyone") and adds an extra element of peril when danger looms -- she can't swim yet. The late arrival of the Amazons reunites the whole gang, and Nancy wavering between being explorer and "savage" is, well, very Nancy.

But that brings me to the uncomfortable part. There are other kids around, and instead of being explorers or pirates or prospectors, these children have chosen to be "savages," calling themselves the Children of the Eel, complete with carved totems, corroborrees (sic), human sacrifice and cannibalism. The discomforts mount. A small black buoy is referred to as a 'piccaninny.' Savages, missionaries, native kraals, mastadons, buffaloes and dhows are all jumbled together in an exotic (pan-African?) mish-mash. It's awful. At the end, Captain Walker speaks pidgin to the Eels ("You. Black man. Strong fellow...") and they speak back to him in gibberish. That was the point when I realised that I can never read Secret Water again.


  1. One small correction - Secret Water is not as far up as the Norfolk Broads - it's in Essex - I went there once as a child. "It's just like Secret Water!" I said, excitedly - "It *is* Secret Water," my mother replied. The best day of that particular holiday.
    That said, Secret Water wasn't my favourite of the books. The racist language went over my head at the time, although it's impossible to read now. I think another problem is that Ransome is going backwards; he's trying to recapture the magic of the first book - children exploring an island and having 'wars' with the local children who think the island is 'theirs' and then becoming friends. But the Walkers in the last book sailed to Holland and back, and in the book before that they were all fighting a very real wildfire, and all the characters the Ds meet in the Norfolk Broads are sorting out real problems. The games the children play in Secret Water are not only horribly dated in their use of language, but the older children are getting too old for them. The best bits for me are when we see Titty, Roger and Bridget together getting into real trouble; the characterisation, dialogue and humour are at their Ransomish best.
    I also wonder (and this is me projecting, I doubt Ransome is thinking of it yet) if John and Nancy's respective futures are looming. John is being very responsible and anxious to get the maps finished and show his father how well he can do - he almost certainly has a future in either the Navy or the Merchant Navy. But Nancy - aware at least sub-consciously of how limited her life choices are likely to be when she finishes school - maybe wants to carry on with her childhood games for as long as possible.

  2. Whoops, thanks for the correction -- I'm not familiar with the eastern side of the UK at all!
    Your comments are so insightful. I think you're right about trying to go back to the first book, and as I was reading I did think, John and Nancy are too old for this now. That is such a brilliant observation about their futures. What IS going to happen to Nancy? Too young to get an exciting job in the war, and she'll be adult in the fifties just when the choices for women are narrowing. Has anyone written a satisfying future for Nancy Blackett?

    1. Depending on exactly when the books are meant to be set, it's possible to imagine Nancy as a WRN during the War with all that signaling expertise coming in useful. In general, I prefer to think of Nancy as being forever the red-capped Captain of the Amazon Pirates, sailing her little boat across the lake to the island - somewhere she'll always be, the way Pooh and Piglet are always in the Five Acre Woods at the end of the Winnie the Pooh - a sort of enchanted place. But that said, there are fanfics, though the only one I've read was one in which grown up Roger meets Rowan Marlow .

  3. Okay, in my head Nancy is going to be a mentor for Nicola in the WRNs.