Monday, January 21, 2013

"The Wind in the Willows" : Review

"One does not argue with The Wind in the Willows.  The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters.  The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly.  The book is a test of character.  We can't criticize it, because it is criticizing us.  As I wrote once: It is a Household Book; a book which everybody in the household loves, and quotes continually; a book which is read aloud to every new guest and is regarded as the touchstone of his worth."
~ A.A. Milne

C.S. Lewis once said that “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.”  By extension, a children’s story that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike is the definition of a good children’s story.  And when you look up that definition in the dictionary, a cover photo of The Wind in the Willows is at the top of the entry. 

Grahame’s 1908 story of semi-anthropomorphic animals—and by that I mean: they wear clothes but still live in burrows—seems simple, and yet there is a level of sophistication that sets it apart from other cutesy animal books. 

The story starts with The Mole, sick of his mundane underground home, abandoning his spring-cleaning for the sun and fresh air of the riverbank.  Immediately the reader is attached to Moley because anyone can relate to his situation (who hasn’t been stuck inside doing chores on a beautiful sunny day?).  Then the Mole meets the Rat, who is specifically a River Rat, complete with boat and wicker picnic basket.  Ratty becomes a sort of volunteer tour-guide of the World Above for the na├»ve Mole, who moves in with him along the riverbank.  Joining them on their adventures is Mr. Badger, whose antisocial exterior gives lie to the warmth and wisdom he holds for his true friends. 

Then there is Mr. Toad: the amazing, marvelous, ingenious, magnanimous…and completely foolish Mr. Toad of Toad Hall.  Rich, spoiled, self-centered (though it must be admitted not selfish…he loves to share is adventures with his friends), Toad brings in most of the conflict of the story when he takes up the “mania” of automobiles.   Crashing car after car, Toady gets an intervention from his three friends, relapses with a vengeance, steals a car, and gets thrown in prison…and that’s only halfway through the book!

The storyline itself is almost episodic in nature, switching back and forth between Toady’s irresponsible and disastrous exploits and the other creature’s more subdued, often poignant vignettes:  Moley’s homesickness for his own humble hole in the ground. Ratty questioning his “sedentary” life along the riverbank and deciding to go to sea.  The encounter with Pan.  The vague threat of the unknown in the Wild Wood.  Even Toad’s struggle to shed his egocentricity and pride teach us something of ourselves—in Toady’s case, maybe stuff we didn’t really want to know about ourselves!  Although these characters are animals, we human readers connect to them on an equal footing.

One image I find particularly resonant is the River itself.  Ratty’s river.  For some reason, both when it was read to me as a child, and when I reread it myself as an adult, I felt that Ratty’s love of the River was like a symbol of my love for reading.  This is the kind of thing the Rat says in Chapter 1: The River Bank:
Illustration by Ernest H. Shepard, 1933
‘It’s the only thing,’ said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke.
‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. […]  In or out of ‘em, it doesn’t matter.  Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it.  Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.’ 

Reading is a way of traveling from the snugness of your sofa-cushions, to places that don’t even exist.  When you set the book aside, there is sometimes a jarring effect, like when you heave yourself out of a pool after swimming a while. 

Suggested Reading Age: As soon as possible.

Parental Notice: Some “villain” animals and the Wild Woods might be too scary for toddlers

Availability: While you can find a free Kindle edition of The Wind in the Willows here, it does not include Ernest H. Shepard’s original illustrations, which is a travesty in my humble opinion.  Besides, this is the sort of book that you want to have in hardcopy, hard cover, with a dust jacket, in case there’s some sort of power outage emergency which renders Kindles useless.  Don’t lose your copy of Wind in the Willows when disaster strikes! Buy a good copy, like mine. You won't regret it.

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