By Arthur Ransome
Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1934
This is the fifth book in the Swallows and Amazons series, following after Winter Holiday.
In the previous book the two new characters, Dick and Dorothea, were found to be fine explorers and adventurers, but rather lacking in the area of boating and sailing skills. This was not a big deal in midwinter with the lake frozen over, but if the D's want to join in with the adventuring next summer they will have to learn to sail. Thankfully, they have a chance to learn when a family friend invites them to come stay on her boat over the Easter holiday.
The D's ship off to the Norfolk Broads, to meet Mrs. Barrable at Wroxham... where they are stuck. Mrs. Barrable's brother has been called abroad, leaving them in a fine yacht too big for Mrs. Barrable to manage on her own. But fortunately, they fall in with the local gang of adventurers, a group calling themselves the Coot Club.
The Coot Club task themselves with cataloging and protecting the local waterfowl (egg collecting is a popular activity in the 1930s). Their leader, Tom Dudgeon, has recently had a run-in with some rowdy tourists who had parked their boat on top of a coot nest, and when they ignored polite requests to move, well, there was nothing for it but to unmoor their boat and set it adrift. Tom is happy to trade sailing lessons for an alibi and an easy way downriver.
Soon the D's, Mrs. Barrable, and a rotating cast of Coot Club members (to say nothing of the dog) are travelling up and down the Broads and having many interesting and exciting adventures. This is the first of the Swallows and Amazons books in which fantasy does not play a leading role -- there are 'pirates' and 'outlaws', of course, but the plot is driven by real-life events, including real-life bad guys. (The tourists, that is. But they are pretty awful).
As with the other books of the series, Arthur Ransom keeps the story moving without sparing the details of sailing; this story is mostly about some kids sailing a boat up and down river, dealing with tides and bridges and right-of-way. And it is exciting and engaging. When I was a kid the competency and freedom of the children was inspiring, and now that I am mostly grown, Ransom's ability to make lowering a mast to go under a bridge interesting is equally inspiring.
I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys kid's adventures, particularly if you also like historical fiction. However, I would also recommend starting with Swallows and Amazons; while Coot Club would be enjoyable out of context, it really works best when read in order.
For those who have read this book and would like more of the Coot Club, the D's will eventually return to the Broads in The Big Six, book number 9 of the series. However, if you are reading the books in order, the next in the series is Pigeon Post.