When my husband, Angus, asked me what book I was reading this week, and I told him, he gave me this look. A kind of “what’chu talkin’ ’bout?” look. He’s not as bookish as I am, and he was quite astounded to learn, after seven years of being married to me, that I’d never read this week’s book.
For Angus, this book was an essential part of his childhood. In fact, he wants to read my copy when I’ve finished with it – so I’d better hurry up and finish my review.
Even though I’m encountering this book for the very first time at twenty-three twenty-eight okay – thirty-two, I’m immensely glad I found the time to read it. There’s something about this week’s book that’s made me feel a little younger.
Here’s this week’s review:
Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame
Published in 1908
I think I’ll come straight out and say it: if you’re not even the slightest bit enchanted by Wind in the Willows, I honestly think you should seek professional help, as there could be something medically wrong with you.
Perhaps you’re terminally dull and boring, or there’s something drastically awry with the part of your brain that handles creative thought? Or maybe you had your sense of humour extracted at a young age? Either way, I strongly advise you speak to someone – and fast.
I personally found Wind in the Willows absolutely fascinating. For me, it was one of those books where the sheer experience of reading it is nearly as enjoyable as the book itself. Sitting at my desk at work, I often found myself daydreaming (more so than usual) about the book and its characters. Every time I opened up the pages of Wind in the Willows to read a little more I’d feel as if the real world was quite distant – and most unwelcome.
The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908, is Kenneth Grahame’s most recognisable work. It originally found life as a series of letters Grahame wrote to his only child, Alistair.
The plot? It’s a little difficult to explain. The book begins with Mole, who decides that he can’t be bothered cleaning his “lowly little house” and burrows upwards to freedom. Going for a long stroll in the sun, he encounters a river for the first time ever – which is where he meets the Water Rat. Their friendship is sealed immediately, and they go for a ride in Rat’s boat.
Each of the book’s chapters centres around a different adventure. In one, Mole and Rat return to Mole’s old hole for Christmas. In another, the pair decide to brave the Wild Wood and call upon Badger. In another, Ratty is tempted into travelling south to escape the winter. And so on.
But there is a plot arc that traverses all of the stories: Toad, after nearly being ran over in the book’s second chapter, develops a love of cars that borders on obsession. Eventually, after Toad’s infatuation grows worse (he’s involved in a series of car accidents) his friends intervene, confiscating his car and holding him captive in his lavish home, Toad Hall, until he vows to change his hoonish ways. But Toad manages to escape Toad Hall, where he steals a car and makes a run for it (and they say video games are a bad influence on children!)
But the law catches up with Toad, and he’s thrown into custoady (sorry, couldn’t help it) ; sentenced to serve a whopping twenty year term in prison (harsh much??). Left to his own thoughts in a dark, lonely cell, Toad begins to think about his actions – before he poses as a washerwoman and makes a daring escape!
But has Toad really changed his ways forever? You’ll need to read Wind in the Willows to find out – I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.
Hang on – “dressed as a washerwoman”? Yes, you did read that right. Toad, we’re told, wearing a dress looks for all the world like a human washerwoman. He’s also able to drive a car – a regular-sized car he stole from humans. In the book’s second chapter, Toad, Mole and Ratty all set off for an adventure in a horse-drawn wagon.
This had me scratching my head. A rat, a toad and a mole – in a horse-drawn carriage?? A toad driving a car and wearing a dress? How does this even work? The scale is all totally wrong!
I asked Angus at this point what he thought of all this as a child, and he just shrugged and said something to the effect that it just wasn’t something he noticed. It all made sense to him.
With every page I read, I had more and more questions. Why is Otter the only character with a family? Are Ratty and Mole more than just friends? Why can’t all the animals talk? Why are all the animals so biased against rabbits? By having Toad dress up as a washerwoman, what is Kenneth Grahame trying to say about the role of women? Why do animals have such strict etiquette rules? Why are all the main characters middle-class males? Why why why??
With every page, I had more and more questions. Eventually, I began to see Angus’ point – a child doesn’t think about any of these things. They just enjoy the story. So I told my thirty-two year old mind to just shut up for a while and let me enjoy the book. Which, once I stopped questioning everything, I did.
I enjoyed Wind in the Willows immensely, in fact.
Above all else, Wind in the Willows is a story about friendship, and the lengths true friends will go to for each other. It’s the story of Mole, who, much like Bilbo Baggins, discovers there’s much more to the world than his neat little hole in the ground. It’s also the story of Toad, who comes to realise that friends are more important than anything else in the world – even fancy, fast cars.
Wind in the Willows is also an ode to the beauty of nature. Kenneth Grahame’s descriptions of the land, the river, the changing seasons – they’re perfect. His writing will take your breath away. Each sentence is loaded with poetry; for instance, from only the third page of the book, when Mole encounters the river for the very first time:
“By the side of the river, he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea”
– Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows, page 3
There were so many times when I was reading this book that I just had to stop for a moment and shake my head. The writing is just that good. It’s so good, in fact, it makes you forget what’s really around you. It even makes human-sized animals accaptable.
In my favourite chapter of the whole book, Rat and Mole volunteer to help find one of Otter’s young children, who has gone missing. While out on the river in their boat, they follow the sound of pipes to an island, where they find the youngster asleep – at the feet of the god Pan himself. They fall down to worship him, and fall asleep on the ground, waking to discover that they can’t fully remember or comprehend or even begin to articulate the dazzling beauty of the experience they’ve just shared. It’s a little similar to how I felt after I finished reading Wind in the Willows, actually – it’s like waking up from a pleasant dream.
But Wind in the Willows isn’t all just pretty scenery. The characters of the book – Mole, Rat, Toad, Otter and Badger – are all beautifully brought to life. Each has an endearing personality all of his own – yes, even the self-centred, delinquent Toad. I’d tell you my favourite character, but really, I adore them all in their own unique way.
Although I didn’t experience Wind in the Willows when I was young, I’m very glad I made time to read it as an adult. Once I managed to turn off those annoying grown-up parts of my mind that kept harassing me with silly questions, I lost myself in the pages of Wind in the Willows completely. It’s an utterly enchanting, endearing story.
Already, I’m looking forward to reading it all over again…
Official Book to the Future rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Totally. Don’t be ashamed. If you feel like a tool reading a kids’ book on the train to work, grab a copy of The DaVinci Code or one of those Stieg Larsson books and whack it inside. No-one will ever know the difference. Or, find a child, and use them as an excuse to read this book out loud. They’ll be just as entranced as you are.
Really, I don’t really mind how you read this book, just promise me you’ll read it okay?
In a word: