JULIA JONES, THE SALT-STAINED BOOK, Golden Duck £8.99, 8+
“BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN,” is the kind of answer few contemporary parents would dream of giving their children if they wished to avoid prosecution by the Social Services. Yet it’s exactly that robust attitude which has thrilled readers of Arthur Ransome for almost a hundred years, and messing about in boats is back in fashion, with the news that the BBC is to film the classic Swallows and Amazons series. How timely then that this month, along comes Julia Jones’s debut, The Salt-Stained Book, which is so thoroughly inspired by Arthur Ransome it almost brings with it a whiff of pemmican and grog. Jones’s family bought Ransome’s famous boat, Peter Duck when she was three, and her love of sailing and the author is so infectious that - even if you are not a Ransome fan - you’ll feel the thrill of turning a dinghy straight into the wind’s eye and holding her there.
Donny, her thirteen-year-old hero, is a plucky boy who discovers his inborn prowess as a sailor in the most adverse of circumstances. His Granny has died, and his deaf mother Skye has gone on the run with him. Mysteries pile on mysteries because although Donny has been kept away from all matters nautical, Skye insists that Swallows and Amazons, which she buys for him, is important. Donny has also found a telegram from his mysterious Great Aunt Ellen saying that she has had Strong Winds crated and will be arriving in Shotley some time in September. Fired by this strange message, Donny and his mother drive their van to Essex before the police and Social Services catch up with them. Skye is taken off to hospital and drugged; Donny is sent to live with a dreary Suffolk Vicar, Wendy. With an Education Welfare Officer of eye-watering frightfulness dismissing everything he tells her as fantasy, Donny has to work out the central mystery of his existence.
His unexpected skill at sailing brings him into the orbit of two glamorous sailor girls and Anna, a waif-like computer whizz who has kept sullenly silent while in care. Once she decides to trust Donny, Anna knows just how to get permission to see their new friends from the Rev Wendy. She says, “”I’m worried about two of the girls at school…I don’t know any other black people and I might do the wrong thing,” which of course means they are thrust into the company of “different people” immediately. Jones’s send-ups of political correctness may grate on some (and may well be why this delightful novel is self-published) but children, especially those living in the country, will relish it.
Not only is The Salt-Stained Book quirky, it’s funny and exciting. For pitted against Donny and his friends at Pin Mill are childhood’s traditional enemies in the shape of unimaginative adults. There is a bullying policeman who tries to run them down in his motor-boat, the Social Services, teachers and more; even the nicest of them fear Great Aunt Ellen is a myth. However she turns out to be thoroughly real and a splendid old battle-axe – provided you aren’t a land-lubber.
I wasn’t sure about the historical framing device that gives the novel its title, but the story is never predictable. A projected trilogy, it has density of detail about a real place, and sailing which, together with the plot, makes for pure fun. Among so many children’s books that seem machine-tooled, Jones’s novel feels like a hand-crafted toy, whose occasional wonkiness only adds to its appeal. Duffers will hate it