Swampfire

by Patricia Cecil Hass

Found this one at random in a thrift store. It was an entertaining read for one afternoon- I’m sure kids would enjoy this adventure story from a different era, when kids ran about exploring freely, but for me as an adult reading, there were just a few too many plot holes. It’s about two kids who visit a relative that has a peanut farm on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. They’ve made friends with a local boy, from a poor family that lives more or less off the land nearby. Eager to learn about the swamp from him, they plan to go camping. Just before setting out, hear from other locals about a ghost in the swamp. The children scoff at the idea of a ghost and are determined to find what it is- certain it must be an unknown animal. They find a stray horse, and also the game warden tracking something with dogs. So of course their focus switches from just camping out, to catching the horse, evading the dogs, and then fighting off and escaping a fire in the swamp, when one kid gets injured and nearly trapped. The horse saves the day (not of his own accord).

Actually, I liked how realistic the horse was, when so many other things were dubious. At the start of the kids’ outing, I was reminded of Two Little Savages, but this book has far less detail on survival skills- they do make a fire, catch and cook fish, gather berries to eat, etc- but I was baffled at how they strung hammocks to sleep up high in a tree, somehow it skipped the specifics of that. They also have wildlife encounters- a bobcat, a snake, then later a black bear- it was astonishing how easily these kids fought off the bear with sharpened sticks. And the confrontation with the fire was something else, too- even though the horse was kind of used to them at that point, I doubt it would have really trusted them enough to get so close to the flames. Willing to overlook that for the sake of an exciting kid’s story, though. What puzzled me more, was the secrecy- the kids were so convinced they had to hide the horse from the game warden- what did they think would happen when they got it to the farm? Of course they want to avoid finding the horse’s real owner (it’s obviously a valuable animal) but then very conveniently for a happy ending, it turns out the owner is tired of her horse running away, and perfectly happy to let them keep it at the peanut farm. Yay.

I have to mention a good part of this story is the kids’ interactions- mild squabbling between the brother and sister, the quiet local boy admiring their easy way of talking while they in turn admire his knowledge of the swamp and skills there. The brother is interested in bird-watching and thinks he sees an ivory-billed woodpecker (extinct). The local kid has two nearly-invalid parents he supports at home in the swamp, stubbornly refusing assistance. I kind of wondered if there’s a later book that continues some of those threads.

Rating: 2/5
187, 1973

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