Friday, July 08, 2016

Book Review - The Wind in the Willows

My only previous exposure to The Wind in the Willows comes from Disney's animated film The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad and the Disneyland attraction Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Reading this fun little novel was a similar and yet very different experience altogether.

The Disney movie and ride are both quite adventurous and action packed. The book does have action sequences and rising plot points but much of the novel is a quaint relaxing view into the lives and relationships of, I mean, animals. The Disney films focus primarily on Mr. Toad and his exploits while the novel begins with young Mole meeting Rat and learning about life on the river. Much of the book revolves around their growing friendship and the experiences they have together.

We learn about the different motivations and lifestyles of the various creatures living on the river and in the nearby wood. An unspoken class system is explored as well as the nature of maturity and taking responsibility for one’s station in life. Mole and Rat are young carefree creatures and yet they are down to earth and acknowledge the relationship and responsibility of being part of a community. Toad is at the high end of the class structure but at the lower end of the responsibility scale. He is rather egocentric and impulsive, thinking only of his next thrill or what accolades he can obtain to brag about in his next conversation. Badger is initially presented as sort of a stand-offish curmudgeon but as you get to know him you find him as the stalwart established member of society who uses his station and responsibility to help the less fortunate even while berating them for their own behaviors that brought their world crashing down around their shoulders.

** Semi-spoiler plot descriptions in following paragraph **

The novel is subtle in the lessons it teaches about responsibility, respect, loyalty and other concepts. It takes the reader through a number of shorter sequences each building a framework for the final climactic segments with Mr. Toad and Toad Hall that Disney used in their movie. We first see Mole take a break from cleaning and meeting Rat on the river and then learn all about boating and relaxing and enjoying the water. We meet Toad as he drags the reluctant Rat and Mole on a trip in his new horse drawn caravan only to leave them in the ditch picking up the pieces. We see Mole carelessly wandering off into the woods and getting lost with Rat bravely searching after him. We meet Badger and find him shake off his gruff demeanor to help his friends and neighbors. We find Mole's home (which he abandoned mid-spring-cleaning in the first chapter) and learn more about his background. We get a little bit of River mythology as Mole and Rat go on a quest to find a missing child. We also see Rat toy with the ideas of leaving his quaint river for the larger world. Finally, we follow Toad as he continuous along his impulsive path of self-destruction before finally agreeing to get help from his friends and striving to be a better Toad.

** End spoiler **

All of these stories keep the plot going and engage the reader (both young and old) with fun anecdotes and wry humor. The general pacing is slow and calm like a gentle country river but it has depth and beauty that should be looked at from different angles and appreciated for the great experience that it is. Young readers will have fun with the story and may get some ideas about "proper" behavior and how they should interact with and treat others. Older readers may think about larger societal relations and stereotypes that should perhaps be reconsidered or adapted. This is a book that should be read with the mind of a person relaxing in the country and appreciating the life of a simpler time and place but with the intent to take the feelings and lessons back with you as you return to the larger, busier world.

4 out of 5 stars

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