Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Wind in the Willows

by Pa Rock

Last year after learning that my four-year-old granddaughter and her mother were reading and enjoying the "Frog and Toad" series by Arnold Lobel, I reasoned that if they liked those adventures, they would surely have fun reading Kenneth Grahame's classic, The Wind in the Willows.  I had seen an adaptation of some of that material on PBS several years ago and remembered liking it.  Even if I hadn't actually read the work myself, it was a classic and would undoubtedly be a hit with my grandchild.

So, Pa Rock being the pushy grandparent that he is, ordered a copy of The Wind in the Willows for little Olive and her mother.

Recently my son gave me a copy of the same book, one that he had picked up at a yard sale, and I determined to read it so that Olive and I could discuss the finer literary points of the children's novel.  To my surprise and embarrassment, I quickly learned that small children were probably not the intended audience for this work because it is rife with adult themes and situations.

True, Grahame did create the stories included in The Wind in the Willows to entertain his young son, in much the same manner as A.A. Milne intended when he penned the Winnie the Pooh collection and Richard Adams did with Watership Down, but the level of complexity in Grahame's work suggests that his young son, Alistair, an only child, might have been coaxed toward an early maturation by overly eager parents.

The Wind in the Willows is the story of several animals living in a wooded area along a river bank, with four - Mole, Water Rat, Mr. Badger, and Toad - serving as the primary catalysts of the tale.   As the story opens Mole is busy with spring cleaning when he suddenly tires of the annual chore and decides to go on a walkabout.  While on his stroll he encounters a new friend, Water Rat (affectionately known as "Ratty") and inexplicably moves into Rat's home.

(That move could entail a whole other level of meaning - one which I choose not to explore.)

Mole begins hearing tales about the elusive Mr. Badger who lives deeper in the woods, and determines to meet him - even though Ratty warns that Mr. Badger doesn't care much for company.  Mole goes into the woods one wintry afternoon in search of Mr. Badger.  Ratty eventually follows along out of concern for his wandering roommate.  Together the pair get lost in a nighttime snowstorm before inadvertently stumbling upon Mr. Badger's lodgings.  He invites them in out of the awful weather, and Mole has another friend.

But it is Mole's next new friend who drives the crux of the tale and pulls it far beyond the reach of many children.  Ratty takes Mole to meet the esteemed Toad of Toad Hall, a privileged and somewhat spoiled character who lives a life of leisure on inherited money.  (Toad was probably intended by Kenneth Grahame to satirize the lords and ladies and royalty of British society.)  The fellows' first encounter with Toad leads to an adventure and a mishap.  He takes them for a ride in a horse-drawn gypsy caravan (an ornate wagon whose proper name is a "vardo".)  While on their outing a young rascal in a motorcar forces them off the road and the wagon turns over.  Fortunately there were no injuries, but the incident had a profound impact on Toad who could suddenly think of nothing else but acquiring a motorcar for himself.

Over the coming months Toad acquires several cars, all of which he drives recklessly and too fast and eventually wrecks.  His vehicular irresponsibility reaches such a critical mass that his friends, Ratty, Mole, and Mr. Badger hold an intervention and make Toad a prisoner in his own house to prevent him from rushing out and buying another motorcar.  But Toad, that wily cuss, quickly escapes their well-intentioned captivity and hits the road on foot.  He isn't on his own for very long, however, before he  steals a car, goes for a joyride, wrecks the car, and bad-mouths a law enforcement officer - a combination of crimes for which he receives a twenty-year prison sentence.

After several months of confinement in a dank, old prison, Toad, with an assist from a woman who comes into the prison to read to him, dresses up as a washer woman and manages to escape.  While he is on the run he lies his way onto a train and a river barge, he steals a horse and later sells the stolen nag to a gypsy for a hot meal and a few silver coins, and slowly makes his way home where he discovers that the once grand Toad Hall has been taken over by a trashy band of stoats and weasels.  But with the aid of his old friends, Toad goes to war against the home-stealing varmints and eventually regains his home and his rightful place in society - as long as no one dwells too seriously on the fact that he remains an escaped convict.

So there you have it - a children's book whose wistful vistas of wild woods and babbling brooks are quickly replaced by reckless driving, social intervention, car theft, a joyride, confrontation with police, imprisonment, cross-dressing, escape from prison, life on the lam, lying, horse theft, the sale of a stolen horse, and a big dose of old-school violence.

Olive may have liked it, and I hope she did, but I was appalled!

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