Summer Reading on the River

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.

Cover of "The Wind in the Willows (Gollan...

Cover via Amazon

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.”

English: The Wind in the Willows. A breezy sum...

English: The Wind in the Willows. A breezy summer’s day shows off the willow trees lining the banks of the Avon. The photo is taken from the footbridge across the avon at this location. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

English: Kenneth Grahame Русский: Кеннет Грэм ...

English: Kenneth Grahame Русский: Кеннет Грэм (1859-1932) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

English: Hardwick House Toad Hall? The author ...

English: Hardwick House Toad Hall? The author of Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame died at nearby Pangbourne in 1932, and would have known this section of river whilst writing his most famous book. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.”

5 thoughts on “Summer Reading on the River

  1. Hello Mary,

    I have read through your posts, and I am interested in learning more about the Salish Sea, particularly about the native Salish people. Do you know of any resources available to where I can access more information? Thank you.

    • Good question. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, your local museums are a good starting point. The Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture in Seattle is terrific. I haven’t seen the remodeled Museum of History & Industry yet, but I’m guessing it has a good introduction for you, too. Many of the local tribes have their own museums (like the lovely new Suquamish Museum), so if you go online and search Salish tribes, you can find out if you have a museum close by. We were just in Victoria, B.C., and saw a display of Salish artifacts there.

      I think you can learn a lot about any native people by reading their myths and stories, so any such book focusing on the Pacific Northwest would be helpful. Online reviews can direct you to some of the more authentic collections. The stories often overlap the different areas, so, for example, some British Columbia stories are similar to Salish Sea stories.

      And books at your local library (they can often request from another library) or bookstore! I can’t suggest just one. I recently found a copy of A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State by Robin K. Wright and published by the University of Washington Press and the Burke Museum. I found it at a very modest price at a garage sale, but your library should be able to access a copy, also.

      I stumbled once online onto the original diaries, descriptions of Captain George Vancouver’s explorations in the Salish Sea. He was the first European explorer to describe this area, so his observations of the native people was fascinating! Online resources can be great!

  2. Oh, Mary, I just read your post on “Wind and the Willows.” My fourth-grade teacher read it to the class (or perhaps portions of it) and I was enchanted. We also acted out scenes from the book. A red-headed boy with a round face was Toad and I remember him “hopping” up and down the classroom aisles with his exhuberant “Poop Poop.” I have read and re-read the book and am still enchanted by it.

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