Reviewed by Lory Widmer Hess
If you’ve been lucky enough to spend summers as a child in a special place, you know that they carry a most particular magic. The long days of precious freedom, the siren call of wind and wave, the friends and neighbors one sees at no other time or place, caught out of the everyday world into a golden realm of potential. . . it’s an experience you can never forget.
Such a place and such an experience is evoked in Astrid Lindgren’s Seacrow Island, reissued in May by the New York Review Children’s Collection. The Swedish author is best known for writing the instant worldwide classic Pippi Longstocking, but in her own country she published over forty children’s books, as well as plays and screenplays, and was a respected children’s book editor, animal rights activist, and humanitarian. Though she’s one of the world’s most translated authors, the availability of her works in English is fitful, and Seacrow Island has been out of print since 1971.
That it’s now back is cause for celebration, because this is an absolute gem. Set in the Stockholm archipelago where Lindgren spent her own summers, it follows the adventures of a family that rents a tumbledown cabin sight unseen and fills it with their love and warmth, winning our hearts completely along the way. The father and head of the family is the well-meaning but disaster-prone Melker (a writer); then there’s nineteen-year-old daughter Malin, eminently sensible and kind in her role as surrogate mother to her young siblings, but becoming dangerously attractive to young men; robust Johan and Niklas, at twelve and thirteen, looking for and finding all kinds of adventure; and sensitive seven-year-old Pelle, who has a very special connection to animals great and small.
Together with some equally charming year-round residents and visitors, the Melkersons engage in the archetypal summer activities—messing about in boats, building secret forts, adopting animals, a touch of first romance—that are so endlessly fascinating to the young, and young readers will simply love to imagine themselves on this enchanting island. For adult readers, Lindgren’s insight into human idiosyncrasies gives a deeper interest to the narrative, while her impish sense of humor makes it a joy to read. There are slapstick scenes that will delight small children—Melker battling wasps with a can of spray paint, for example—and more subtle forms of wit, as when Malin suddenly realizes her current suitor is actually a self-absorbed jerk.
The point of view shifts about, so that we experience the life of the island through the eyes of children, teenagers and adults, in all its many-faceted richness. Throughout, there is the eloquent celebration of natural beauty in all seasons and weathers, which comes through even in translation to make us feel that we too have found a foothold in this lovely place.
Then Malin suddenly noticed how late it was. A new day had already begun, a day in which the rain had stopped so that it would be bright and clear, as she saw when she went to the window. She stood there for a long time.
“What a wonderful kitchen window,” she murmured. And she knew that she had never seen anything she liked better than what she saw outside. The still water in the light of dawn, the jetty, the gray stones on the shore, everything.
Though it’s full of the magic of summer, Seacrow Island is a realistic book, without the fantasy elements that permeate much of Lindgren’s other writing. An example of her work in this mode is Mio, My Son, also reprinted by the New York Review Children’s Collection in May, and also an overlooked treasure.
Karl Anders Nilsson, an unwanted foster child in Stockholm, learns through a mysterious message that he is really the long-lost son of the King of Farawayland. He travels “by day and by night” to rejoin his father and become the beloved prince Mio. But all is not well in Farawayland. With his new friend Pompoo and his beautiful flying horse Miramis, Mio must fight evil Sir Kato, who has snatched other children away and imprisoned them in his desolate Outer Land.
It’s a familiar fairy tale theme, and Lindgren brings the best qualities of the literary fairy tale into play: images of beauty and delight as well as darkness and danger; the impossible quest of the small and weak to conquer the strong and mighty; a sustaining faith in the power of love. The language is poetic and evocative, but not overly lofty; the first-person narration by Mio speaks directly to the child reader of around his age, between seven and ten.
The story is simple, and one might complain that Mio has little to do for his ultimate triumph. Yet somehow Lindgren’s picture of an innocent soul penetrating the darkness and bringing light and freedom into an evil place is strangely memorable. For young children, it bears a kind of imaginative nourishment that is all too rare. Unlike Seacrow Island, which is a very concrete and particular place, Farawayland speaks to us in the universal language of dreams. The Bread that Satisfies Hunger, the Forest of Moonbeams, the Bridge of Morninglight—through such elemental names Lindgren locates us in a place that never was, yet always will be.
Both places, real and imaginary, are equally wonderful to visit. May many more readers embark on the journey, to find refreshment, joy, and wonder.
Astrid Lindgren, translated by Evelyn Ramsden, Seacrow Island (New York: New York Review Children’s Collection, 2015). ISBN 978-1-59017-868-3, 245 pp., hardcover. (Originally published in Swedish as Vi på Saltkråkan in 1964)
Astrid Lindgren, translated by Jill Morgan, Mio, My Son (New York: New York Review Children’s Collection, 2015). ISBN 978-1-59017-870-6, 176 pp., hardcover. (Originally published in Swedish as Mio, min Mio in 1954)
Lory Widmer Hess blogs about her reading journey at The Emerald City Book Review.