BLOOD RED, SNOW WHITE: Not Your Mother’s Arthur Ransome

Well, not my mother’s, anyway.

When I was young–maybe 7 or 8?–my family took a trip to Canada. The trip included at least one bookstore. And there, my mom–who spent some of her childhood in England–found new editions of books she had read during those years: Arthur Ransome’s SWALLOWS AND AMAZON books. She bought the set and, so, I got to grow up with them, too.

I bought my own set years later, collecting it in ones or twos as I roamed through Charing Cross bookstores. A few days before I rented a car to drive myself out to Buttermere so I could walk around the lake “with” the children from Ransome’s stories.

To me, Arthur Ransome was a bald man with a pipe on a jacket cover who could tell wonderful stories, who knew how to draw little people waving semaphore flags, and who might have represented himself in his own stories as Captain Flint.

Apparently, though, he was also some kind of spy. Maybe.

Marcus Sedgwick’s Blood Red, Snow White is in part the story of whether or not Ransome was a spy and whether he was a spy for England or Soviet Russia. The novel, as far as I can tell, is based on some facts–Ransome’s failed first marriage; his travels as a reporter to Russia across the years of the last tsar, WWI, and the Russian revolution; and his falling in love with the woman who would ultimately become his second wife. He was at the places the book says he was, and it seems true that some people in England thought he was a Russian spy and some people in Russia thought he was an English spy.

I think what Sedgwick has done is filled in, with fiction, the spaces between the facts. He has imagined a man and a story that connect the dots of those facts. The Arthur Ransome of the book has the personality that makes sense of the real activities, and the fictional activities lend credence to the path the fictional Arthur follows.

This is all making it sound as though Sedgwick has pulled off a clever trick, dropped down a basic timeline of history and taken crayons to the gaps in the timeline. But it’s much more than this: the prose is nice, often sliding over into lyrical. The choices Arthur has to make, the one he avoids and the ones he steps toward, are real and challenging. And the setting–physical and history–feels at once tangible and symbolic. It’s an intriguing story, whether or not you know anything about Arthur Ransome the writer.

And both Arthurs–fact and fiction–do come home to England’s Lake District and do write about the Swallows, the Amazons, the Coot Club, Mrs. Barrable, and William the pug. That, for me, adds up to two happy endings.

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