© Julia Jones, cover illustration © Claudia Myatt.
One of my favorite series of adventure stories growing up were the books of Arthur Ransome, beginning with “Swallows and Amazons,” and going on through 11 more family adventures, most involving sailing on lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Ransome wrote really well, but beyond that, his characters were real, yet had the kinds of adventures every kid would be thrilled by, enhanced by their imaginations in a way that made it all the more fun. There are other family adventure series I liked, but none came up to match Ransome’s. Julia Jones grew up immersed in the Ransome stories, and more than that, her parents owned one of Ransome’s boats, the one featured in the book “Peter Duck.” With this book she’s embarked on a series of her own about kids having adventures that owes a lot to Ransome, but is in no way a pastiche or copy of what he did. Instead she’s written a very modern story of kids in crisis that many today could enjoy, but one filled with elements from Ransome for those who know those earlier stories. Not that you need to have read Ransome to enjoy this one.
Donny, age 14, and his deaf mother Skye are on their own after Donny’s grandmother died, with no real home but the van they’re travelling in. They’re supposed to be meeting Donny’s Great Aunt on the eastern coast of England near the town of Shotley, but Aunt Ellen’s telegraph was cryptic. She’s been living in China for decades, but could now be the only hope of a proper home and guardian for Donny and Skye. Things get worse when Skye has an accident with the van, and the two are taken into custody. Skye is put into a mental institution and Donny into foster care in a Vicar’s home with a group of other foster children. To make matters worse, a bullying policeman seems to have it in for Donny, and the social worker is firmly on the man’s side, not Donny’s. The foster home is a miserable place, but Donny is sent to school and finds some allies there who agree to try to help him meet up with his mysterious Aunt. Anna, another child in the home, also comes round to Donny’s side, and proves very resourceful. Despite harrassment from the authorities that should be helping him, Donny makes his plans, which include learning to sail so he can slip away down the river to meet his Aunt on the day appointed. Along the way he gathers more allies but faces heavy odds against him as well. When Donny finally makes his escape and finds himself alone on the river in the middle of the night, the story gathers all the many characters together for a smashingly great finale, and many things become clearer for Donny when the new day dawns.
I loved this book. I can’t say I’d put it quite up there with Ransome, but it’s close. I’m looking forward to the next one. Highly recommended!