The Wind in the Willows

by Kenneth Grahame, John Burningham, Peter Green, Ernest H. Shepard, Margaret Hodges, John Burningham, Ernest H. Shepard, Les Morrill, Roger Sale, Ernest H. Shepard, Laura Lydecker, Diane M. Ashachik, Laura Lydecker, Diane M. Ashachik, Don Daily, G. C. Barrett, Cliff Wright, Joan Collins, Justin Todd,
253 pages,
ISBN: 0884118770

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Children`s Books
by Alicia Sloboda

"For every honest reader," wrote Kenneth Grahame, "there exist some half-dozen honest books, which he re-reads at regular intervals of six months or thereabouts. Whatever the demands on him, however alarming the arrears that gibber and grin in menacing row, for these he somehow generally manages to find time."

Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows is just such an "honest book". Over the past ninety years, readers of this true children's classic have returned to its pages, to rediscover its idyllic world of nature, to be taken blissfully along on journeys full of jolts and surprises, to have tea by the fireside, and to eavesdrop on the chats of these delightful characters who are sometimes animal, other times all too human in their foibles, fickleness, and fears, and who always reveal unusual depths and dimensions to their spirits.

What began as a series of bedtime stories told by Grahame to his young and troubled son (nicknamed Mouse) became on publication in 1908 an instant and enduring hit. Now, Methuen has come up with a beautiful, hardcover, gift edition featuring reproductions of the superb original watercolours by E.H. Shepard, probably best known for his illustrations of Winnie-the-Pooh. An introduction by Brian Sibley that includes photographs and early sketches provides an informative biography, proffers an explanation of the genesis of the story in the crucible of young Grahame's loneliness and imagination, and presents a history of the book's production.

In these pages, we meet the boyishly innocent Mr. Mole as he casts off his spring cleaning and scrambles from his hovel into the budding, brimming river world to embark on an adventure-filled time in heretofore unknown terrains; the considerate and hospitable Water Rat who, Virgil-like, guides Mole through the wonders and dangers of these lands; the boastful and capricious Toad who is forever taking up new activities, venturing down uncharted roads in his caravan, and inevitably being punished for his impetuous misdeeds; the kind-hearted, wise, and misunderstood Old Badger who welcomes lost stragglers on cold winter nights.

The language of these stories is exquisite; the words and the images they call up fairly ripple and dance off the page with a freshness that is still intoxicating after all these years. Listen to the description of an anthropomorphized river viewed for the first time by Mole: "this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver-glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble."

Grahame's language switches with the seasons. The "undecorated, hard, and stripped" syntax matches the starkness of the de-leafed forest in winter: "He had got down to the bare bones of [the country], and they were fine and strong and simple." What such captivating passages demonstrate-and the book is replete with them-is the author's genuine love of the English language and his respect for his young readers.

Grahame's real strength lies in his depiction of place-be it the interiors of the "domestic architectures", the River of the Water Rat and the Toad, the Wild Wood of the forest animals, the Wide World with the unexpected lurking around every bend in the road, and the mesmerizing, far-flung vistas invoked by the Sea Rat. He takes especial care to describe his creatures' homes-uniquely and in minute detail.

But beyond physical description, these stories convey the powerful, emotional theme of home, and it is this, coupled with the undercurrent of nostalgia, that strikes a universal chord. At one point, Mole's humble abode sends out a "telegraphic current" to its long-absent dweller: "Since his escape on that bright morning he had hardly given it a thought... Now, with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him, in the darkness! Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day's work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him."

It is just this sense of beckoning home and homecoming-of "peace and possession", to quote the author-that reading The Wind in the Willows summons up. As it has for generations of children before, so for future generations will it continue to enchant and to wrap its readers in the cozy comfort of its dear, familiar, and trusted stories. 

Alicia Sloboda is a Toronto writer and translator.


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