Chapter VIII: Red knitted caps, and no stockings

The plot thickens. Thickens like a sauce that you’ve been stirring patiently for half an hour, and you turn away from it for less than a minute. So far they’ve basically been pottering about, wittily sewing on buttons. Now there’s smoke, shaking of fists, and a mysterious disappearing pirate ship. You can hardly see for the foreshadowing.

“‘There are two boys in her,’ said Titty.
‘Girls,’ said John, who had the telescope.”

And that’s it for gender until, like, the Great Aunt, as far as I can remember. Did I mention the love?

So now there’s serious stuff to deal with, and Captain John captains up to give the orders. They’re really quite good at following emergency commands, which is kind of good, and kind of reminds the discerning reader that John and Roger (at least) are being prepared for national service.

We get some more John in this chapter. He’s a good leader, able to make decisions quickly and to predict multiple variables, but also to take into account his crew’s advice. He’s extremely loyal to his boat, to the extent where he’s willing to take the blame for her small failings. He’s proud of his sailing ability but not arrogant (and I’ll fight his corner on that if necessary, even in the light of the sequels). And he loves boaty things. He buys 20 yards of rope in Rio. Why? There’s been no mention of them needing rope, and there’s no mention of them using it. Maybe he’s prudent and likes to be prepared. I think he just likes rope, like Titty likes ink.

There are several encounters with natives. First they see their own family in the distance, and have to deal with the sense of alienation:

“For a moment or two no one said anything.
Then Susan said: ‘It’s no use trying to tell mother about the pirates, not until it’s all over, anyhow. But we must put it in the log and tell her afterwards.’
‘We’ll tell her when she isn’t a native any more,’ said Titty. ‘It’s not the sort of thing you tell to natives.'”

Then there’s the crowd of boats and houses which they have to sail through, but which are all but irrelevant as they’re not part of the story. And then the culture shock of having to deal with the shopkeeper:

“‘Four bottles of grog, please,’ said John without thinking.
‘Ginger beer,’ said Susan gravely.”

Notice how it is Susan who navigates these clashes smoothly. This is no Susan Pevensie, with her disconnect from the world of play and distancing from her siblings’ silly stories. This Susan balances daintily on the tightrope between fantasy and necessity, thoroughly delighted by and competent in both.

But we end with Titty, again. Titty who has the clever, selfless idea of letting herself be marooned on an island with a telescope while the others go shopping. But again with the ulterior motives. I remember when my children were tiny, and I was claustrophic, and when we went out together as a family or with friends, I would generously volunteer to run errands. And then I would be by myself for a few minutes. I don’t know whether Titty needs a break from the other Swallows or whether she can’t face the crowds and the cognitive dissonance in Rio, but either way, I think this might be my next tattoo.

Titty island


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