If you find yourself pushing too hard to fit in too much in these last few weeks of summer, it’s time to slow down, sit back, and open one of my favorite books, The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. I grabbed a copy at a garage sale last week.
You’ll find it shelved with the children’s books at your library, but it’s not a book for children anymore. Published back in 1908 (when very few books were published for children), the language is of that era, difficult for today’s child. And, like a really good children’s book, adults can enjoy it as much or more than a child. While working in a school library for almost 15 years, I never saw this book checked out–nor did I ever recommend it.
The book is a series of summer adventures, told through the eyes of Mole, who throws down his spring-cleaning equipment (“Bother!….Hang spring-cleaning!”) and bolts out of his earthen home into the bright spring air, through the meadows, and stumbles upon the river.
“Never in his life had he seen a river before–this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh….All was a-shake and a-shiver–glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.”
And so the river summer begins–a series of madcap adventures with his new friend Water Rat who owns a rowboat. Rat writes poetry and songs, and introduces Mole to Toad, irrepressible, brash, self-centered, wild Toad. Toad flies from one adventure to the next, with his friends trying to keep up and save him from himself. Badger is the wise old adviser who sometimes saves the day. The Weasels and Stoats? We won’t talk about them–too dangerous.
Community is the theme–caring for and loving your friends and standing by them even when they get themselves into terrible fixes and make fools out of themselves.
Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) was a Scottish writer. His mother died when he was five, and since his father, an alcoholic, was unable to care for the four children, they were sent to live with a grandmother in a large old country home close to a river. It provided ample exploring trips along its banks.
Grahame did well in school and wanted to go to Oxford University, but due to financial constraints, went instead to work as a clerk in a bank, eventually becoming Secretary of the Bank of England. He wrote and published children’s stories over the years, married and had one son, nicknamed “Mouse.”
Wind in the Willows was immediately praised on publication (the same year he retired from the bank), even by President Theodore Roosevelt. The headstrong character of Toad is based on Grahame’s son’s childhood personality.
In the past when I’ve read the book, I’ve forgotten this was written over a hundred years ago. Mole and Rat’s first adventure with Toad is with a fancy traveling cart pulled by a horse–the RV of the early 1900’s. Toad is run off the road by a “motor-car,” and he happily abandons the cart in the ditch to find one of those wonderful playthings. Toad, by the way, just begs the modern reader for a psychiatric evaluation!
It’s humorous–and it’s spiritual. One of my favorite chapters is Mole and Rat’s hazy and mystical encounter with a divine being through the beautiful call of a piper.
The last paragraph of the first chapter of The Wind in the Willows:
“This day was only the first of many similar ones for the emancipated Mole, each of them longer and full of interest as the ripening summer moved onward. He learnt to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them.”