Book Review: Old Yeller

I loved the movie version of Old Yeller when my kids were little. I don’t know if I knew then that it came from a book, but I’ve been wanting to read the book by Fred Gipson for years. When I was searching for a classic about an animal for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge, plus a shorter classic after finishing a very long one, this fit the bill on both counts.

Old YellerThe story is told from the point of view of Travis, the fourteen-year-old oldest son of a family in Texas in the 1860s. Though the family lived off the land easily, they didn’t have much in the way of “cash money.” Some of the settlers were joining a cattle drive to a town some 600 miles away, and Travis’s dad decided to go. He left Travis as the “man of the house,” with the responsibility of a man: shooting game for food, keeping critters out of the corn, protecting the family from Indians and wildlife, milking the cows, looking after his Mama and little brother, Arliss, marking the new pigs, and not waiting for his mom to tell him to do things.

Travis felt “pretty near a grown man” and welcomed the opportunity to prove himself. With the exception of being able to reign in Little Arliss, he put in full days of work and did a good job. He was especially gratified when his mother waited supper for him, just like she did for his dad when his work ran late.

But then one day a scruffy, yellow ugly dog showed up on the property and stole some of the family’s meat. Little Arliss claimed the dog immediately, and their mom was willing for him to have him. But Travis hated him especially because of his thieving but also because he was ugly and seemed worthless.

But it wasn’t long before the dog proved it could learn and be a big help to the family, herding hogs, chasing off bears and wolves, etc. And it wasn’t long before Travis loved the dog even more than Little Arliss.

That made it all the harder when tragedy struck, which the author speaks of on the first page.

I love “coming of age” stories, especially the character has to stretch him- or herself farther than they think they can go (Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie, is another favorite along these lines.) I also enjoyed the peek into this era. It used to be a regular thing for a teenager to be trained to do an adult’s work, though they weren’t often left with it all on their shoulders like Travis was. Sometimes I wonder if that would be a better thing than not expecting young people to take on adult responsibilities until they’re out of college or later. Then again, it was a hard life, and I enjoy the fact that young people now have avenues to explore in their teens that young people didn’t have then. I also can’t imagine being nearly alone on the edges of a settlement while a husband is away for months with no means of communication for all that time, and having to patch up serious injuries of both boys and animals and take on the extra work that they can’t do while injured.

Probably my favorite part of the book is the advice Travis’s dad gave him when he returned and heard all that had gone on in his absence:

That was as rough a thing as I ever heard tell of happening to a boy. And I’m mighty proud to learn how my boy stood up to it. You couldn’t ask any more of a grown man… It’s not a thing you can forget. I don’t guess it’s a thing you ought to forget. What I mean is, things like that happen. They may seem mighty cruel and unfair, but that’s how life is part of the time. But that isn’t the only way life is. A part of the time, it’s mighty good. And a man can’t afford to waste all the good part, worrying about the bad parts. That makes it all bad.

I listens to the audiobook very nicely read by Peter Francis James. he did a good job with the expression as well as the accents. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen the movie version, but it seems to have followed closely to the book except for drawing out the climax more.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)




Book Review: These Happy Golden Years

happy-golden-yearsThese Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder covers the time when Laura, at age 15, starts teaching school, to the time of her marriage at age 18.

It’s incredible to us today to think of someone teaching at age 15, before they have even finished high school. I don’t think that was the usual course even then, but a need arose, and Laura had passed the teaching examination and was willing to go.

This term was one of the most difficult of her life. The school was twelve miles from her home, and she boarded with the superintendent. His wife was sullen, mostly silent, and seemed to resent Laura’s being there. Later Laura heard her complaining about everything, not just Laura, so she knew it was just that she was unhappy in general rather than just resenting Laura. The woman was probably clinically depressed from what I can ascertain. At one point in the middle of the night she threatened her husband with a knife, but he talked her down. The conditions of both the house and the school were fairly primitive. The walls and floor of the school had cracked through which the cold seeped in. Sometimes Laura let the students do their lessons around the stove. Laura never really liked teaching, but it was a way she could earn money to help keep Mary in the college for the blind.

She was concerned that her youth and small stature would be a problem in trying to teach and discipline students who were bigger and older than she was. And indeed it was, but her parents’ good advice and her own ingenuity helped her over those hurdles.

The only thing that made this time bearable was the fact that it was only for that one term, plus Almanzo Wilder came and picked her up every Friday afternoon, took her home, and brought her back every Sunday. When her students referred to him as her beau, she didn’t want him to get the wrong idea, and told him she was just riding with him to get home, not because she had any interest in him. She expected he wouldn’t keep coming after that, but he did.

Finally the term was over and she was back at home, attending her own classes, which she had been able to keep up with by studying on her own. On weekends a lot of the young people paired up to go sleighing around town. Laura was feeling lonely and out of it when Almanzo came and asked if she’d like to go with him. Thus started a habit that continued on, riding the sleigh in the winter and the buggy in the spring and summer. Laura was not afraid even when Almanzo was breaking new horses in with the buggy, and she had to jump in as Almanzo could only pause for a few seconds before the horses took off again.

She taught two more terms of school in different places, continued with her own schooling, helped at home. Mary came home for a couple of visits. I enjoyed seeing Carrie mature and the relationship between her and Laura grow, as well as the rejoicing in the family when any one of them received something or had a good opportunity. Pa would have liked to move the family on again where the land was less settled, but he didn’t. Her descriptions of a couple of dresses Ma made, with all the detail, layers, lining, and bustle, made me very glad that fashions have changed since that time!

Almanzo was a quiet, not pushy, but persistent suitor. Laura didn’t give him much encouragement, as he was ten years older. At one point when someone called Laura a young lady, “she was startled” and had not thought of herself in that way and “was not sure she liked” it. But when Nellie Oleson tried to horn her way in to his attentions, I think perhaps Laura understood then just how much she actually did care for Almanzo. In Pioneer Girl, she wrote that after he had been away for a few months, “I hadn’t known that I missed him, but it was good to see him again, gave me a homelike feeling.” The way they got engaged was both sweet and funny.

One of my favorite scenes in the book is when she’s admiring their new home, particularly the spaciousness and organization of the kitchen and pantry that he had crafted for her.

I very much enjoyed this reread of this book.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Books you loved 4



Book Review: The Story Girl

story-girlI read The Story Girl by L. M. Montgomery for Carrie’s  L. M. Montgomery Reading Challenge.

It opens with two brothers, Beverly and Felix King, going to stay with their father’s extended family while he travels to Rio de Janeiro on business. The King family lives on the old family homestead, and Bev and Felix look forward to exploring all the old haunts their father has told them of. The branch of the family they are staying with includes a brother and two sisters, Dan, Felicity, and Cecily King. Another cousin, Sara Stanley, lives with a nearby aunt and uncle. Neighbor Sara Ray and hired boy Peter Craig round out the group.

Sara Stanley is called the Story Girl partly because there is another Sara in the group, but mainly because she has a unique voice and ability to enthrall children and adults alike with the way she tells stories. The book tells of the children’s interactions, adventures, and misadventures, and along the way Sara entertains them with stories. Some are family tales, some are local lore, others are fairy tales or classical stories.

The children range in age from 11 to 14, yet seem younger than children of the same age by today’s standards.

I wondered if one reason Montgomery told stories about children was because she could explore issues through a child’s innocence, lack of experience, and questioning that she might not feel quite the freedom to with adults. For instance, in one chapter the cat is unwell, and some of the children think one of the women in the village put a spell on him when he yelped because she accidentally stepped on his tail. Some don’t think so, but they agree that they need to make an appeal for her to remove the spell and explain that he didn’t mean any harm. They also get some medicine down him, and pray. When he gets well, they argue about whether it was the spell removal, the medicine, or the prayers that cured him. “Thus faith, superstition, and incredulity strove together amongst us, as in all history.” In another, one of them finds an article in the newspaper reporting that someone in the USA predicted the date for Judgment Day. They argue over whether it’s true and what to do about it and respond in a variety of ways.

One story that disturbed me a bit was a legend about how the Milky Way came to be (in the chapter “A Daughter of Eve”). As the story has it, two archangels fell in love, which God did not allow among angels, so He separated them to far sides of the universe. But they loved each other so much, they each began building a bridge of light toward the other, not realizing the other was doing the same. When they met, some of the other angels reported it to God and asked him to punish them. He said, “‘Nay, whatsoever in my universe true love hath builded not even the Almighty can destroy. The bridge must stand forever.” It’s not the fanciful story that bothers me so much as the thought planted in reader’s heads that there is something God is powerless against. In another part of the book, the children wonder what God looks like until finally one of them finds someone who says he has a picture of God in a book at home, and they buy the picture from him for 50 cents. When they see it, they’re sad and dismayed that He looks old and “cross” and intimidating rather than friendly and inviting. They all process this in different ways until they finally ask the minister, who assures them that, though no one really knows what God looks like, He assuredly does not look like this. He tells them to bury the picture. They’re relieved, yet,

We had lost something of infinitely more value than fifty cents, although we did not realize it just then. The minister’s words had removed from our minds the bitter belief that God was like that picture; but on something deeper and more enduring than mind an impression had been made that was never to be removed. The mischief was done. From that day to this the thought or the mention of God brings up before us involuntarily the vision of a stern, angry, old man. Such was the price we were to pay for the indulgence of a curiosity which each of us, deep in our hearts, had, like Sara Ray, felt ought not to be gratified.

To me, planting that thought from the other story that God is powerless against true love does the same thing. Even though we know that’s not true, that thought keeps coming to mind.

But most of the stories and happenings are much lighter. There is a lot of charm in the stories, and I particularly like LMM’s characterizations and how the children play off each other. But there is a bit of a sharp edge, too, when the children are mean to each other, like the constant references to Felix being fat or Dan’s larger than usual mouth. Some of LMM’s writing is lovely; some seems to me to overstep into purple prose. But one of the main points of the story that I love is:

There is such a place as fairyland – but only children can find the way to it. And they do not know that it is fairyland until they have grown so old that they forget the way. One bitter day, when they seek it and cannot find it, they realize what they have lost; and that is the tragedy of life. On that day the gates of Eden are shut behind them and the age of gold is over. Henceforth they must dwell in the common light of the common day. Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again; and blessed are they above mortals. They, and only they, can bring us tidings from that dear country where we once sojourned and from which we must evermore be exiles. The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.

And I could identify with this, said of the Story Girl:

She loved expressive words, and treasured them as some girls might have treasured jewels. To her, they were as lustrous pearls, threaded on the crimson cord of a vivid fancy. When she met with a new one she uttered it over and over to herself in solitude, weighing it, caressing it, infusing it with the radiance of her voice, making it her own in all its possibilities for ever.

If I still had children of an age to read to, I am not entirely sure I would read this to them: if I did, it would be with some editing and discussions along the way.

One of the reasons I wanted to read this book was that the series “The Road to Avonlea” is based on it and its sequel, The Golden Road. I don’t remember seeing any of the series when it was originally on except for possibly a part of one episode at someone’s house. I had planned to see one before writing this review, but it’s not on Hulu or Netflix. There are excerpts on YouTube, but only 4 or 5 minutes each, with links back to Sullivan Entertainment, where they offer to sell them to you. DVDs are still available, but I didn’t want to buy them – I just wanted to see the first episode. Unfortunately our library system only has one Christmas episode from the series. The part I saw on YouTube had the same feel and look as Sullivan’s production of “Anne of Green Gables” with Megan Follows, but apparently they left out some of the characters and changed various details.

I listened to a free audiobook version on Librivox, which was read by volunteers across the country. Unfortunately, it sounds like it was read by volunteers. The sound quality wasn’t good on all of them: some had static or other noises. Some of the readers did better than others. But…it was free, Audible didn’t have it, and I had more room in my listening time than I did in my reading time, so I pressed on with it. I did get a copy of the book from the library to go over certain parts, and I just discovered a short while ago that the text is online here. I do want to read The Golden Road some time to see what happens with the children.

So – mixed emotions. A lot of good, a handful of qualities I in particular didn’t like. For more enthusiastic reviews, see Hope‘s or Carrie‘s.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)



Book Review: The Green Ember

Green EmberThe Green Ember by S. D. Smith is a children’s story about rabbits. Brother and sister Heather and Picket live a normal (for storybook rabbits), almost idyllic life with their parents and baby brother until one day when a mysterious stranger comes to talk with their parents. Heather and Picket are shooed out to pick berries, but while they are gone, their home is attacked by wolves and burned. Not knowing where their parents are and being spotted by wolves, they try for a harrowing escape, being rescued at the last minute by an uncle they didn’t know they had and his adopted son, Smalls.

Their uncle, Wilfred, and Smalls take them to a community of rabbits hidden away. They see and hear evidences of other wolf attacks. While rabbit forces are training to fight the wolves, rabbit artisans and workmen are keeping their skills honed for a time when the heir of their fallen king will rise up and claim his place and lead them to a season of peace. When injustices or suffering occur, they comfort themselves with the saying, “It shall not be so in the Mended Wood.” Meanwhile discord threatens the community, and Heather and Picket struggle to find their place, especially when they learn their family’s history with the king.

My thoughts:

I don’t read children’s stories other than classics often, though I agree with C. S. Lewis that a good children’s story should appeal to adults, too. I follow The Story Warren, where Smith is a regular contributor, so I saw all the announcements there when the book came out, but I still wasn’t particularly inclined to read it. But when it came up for sale as an audiobook, I figured, why not?

I was expecting to be wowed, and maybe that’s the biggest problem with why I wasn’t. I think when expectations are so high, that can actually set one up for disappointment. I’ve seen it compared to Narnia, and though there are similarities, I think such a comparison helps set up those lofty expectations and the resulting letdown.

It’s not a bad story at all. It has a lot of great elements. I tend to enjoy “coming of age during adversity” type stories generally. I bought and looked back through the Kindle version after listening to the audio, and the things that bothered me while listening didn’t stand out so much while reading. I am not sure if that’s because it lends itself better to being read than listened to or if I was already familiar with it, so certain things did not then stand out.

I think mainly the writing just needs to be tightened up a bit. For instance, in a boat ride with Heather, Picket, Wilfred, and Smalls, Wilfred tells the children, “How about I give you the quick and almost unsatisfactory version” of what was going on. Heather agrees. Then Wilfred says, “So how about I give you a bit of the rundown on things?” And I am thinking, “OK, you just said that, but yes, go ahead.”

There’s a lot of he said, she said, Heather said, Picket said, Wilfred said, etc. That stood out more in the audio because the conversation tags are read with a different voice than the conversation. I don’t think that many are needed, but some variance would help.

Then there was the case of a confusing pronoun: “The oars bit hard into the water, and they shot forward.” Makes it sound like the oars shot forward rather than the boat. The very same mistake occurs at the beginning of the next chapter: “Then he dug in with both oars, and they shot forward.”

A few other examples:

“With one hand he unsheathed his blade, launching it from its sheath toward Uncle Wilfred, who caught it by its hilt.” “From its sheath” could have been left out, making it a much stronger sentence – unsheathing it means taking it from its sheath. Perhaps Smith didn’t think young readers would know what “unsheath” means. But if he can trust them with words like salination, sagacity, and discomfiture, I think they can handle unsheath.

“They looked angry, or most of them did” could have been stronger simply as, “Most of them looked angry.”

“‘Kyle?’ Heather asked, surprised. ‘Yes, and I see this surprises you.'” Seriously? Better would have been something like, “Heather asked, eyes wide and eyebrows raised.” Then, “Yes, and I see this surprises you.”

“Heather stood on tiptoes and dodged back and forth to see over the shoulder of the tall, swaying rabbit in front of her. She wanted to see Mrs. Weaver” who was speaking to the group. Instead of “show, don’t tell,” this is like telling us after showing us. I think the second sentence is unnecessary, but if it really needs to be spelled out, it could have been tucked into the sentence rather than added as a weak passive sentence: “Fervently trying to see Mrs. Weaver, Heather stood…,” etc.

There is a lot of repetition, sometimes within the same paragraph, such as the earlier sentences about the oars and about Wilfred sharing the situation. Here’s another set, at an assembly of different factions: “Behind them, as if separate from the Cloud Mountain community, stood most of the lords, captains, and soldiers who had come from the secret citadels.” And just three sentences later: “There was a large gap between the last of the Cloud Mountain rabbits and the citadel warriors.” Those could have been incorporated into one just by adding “far” in front of the first sentence. In-between these two are the sentence about most of them looking angry and an unnecessary explanatory sentence that the citadel people “appeared to resent this assembly and were making it clear by standing apart.” I think the latter is another instance of unnecessary telling – the rest of the paragraph shows this without spelling it out.

Do I sound horribly nitpicky and critical? I don’t mean to. I really don’t read or listen to books with an editing pen handy, ready to pounce on any little infraction. But when there are a lot of these kinds of things, they’re like speed bumps to the story, slowing down the progress and making me stop to think, “Didn’t he just say that?” or “Did he say what I think he said?” I doubt Mr. Smith will ever see this, but I’m pointing these things out just to encourage writers to be better writers. I think the arc of the story, the characters, the conflict, and most everything else is fine: it’s just these little things that could be tightened up to make it stronger, or at least provide fewer distractions.

To be fair, let me share some of the great quotes that stood out to me:

“If you aren’t angry about the wicked things happening in the world all around, then you don’t have a soul.”

“Why not just apologize to Smalls, to everyone, and move on? But he couldn’t do it. It would feel too much like surrendering ground he felt entitled to.” Thought that was quite insightful – that’s exactly how one feels when not wanting to apologize.

“All of life is a battle against fear. We fight it on one front, and it sneaks around to our flank.”

My place beside you,
My life for yours,
‘Til the Green Ember rises
Or the end of the world!

I like the way the community is not just surviving, but also focusing on and preparing for the time to come: “Here we anticipate the Mended Wood, the Great Wood healed. Those painters are seeing what is not yet but we hope will be. They are really seeing, but it’s a different kind of sight. They anticipate the Mended Wood. So do all in this community in our various ways. We sing about it. We paint it. We make crutches and soups and have gardens and weddings and babies. This is a place out of time. A window into the past and the future world. We are heralds, you see, my dear, saying what will surely come. And we prepare with all our might, to be ready when once again we are free.”

The story ends rather abruptly, obviously setting up for a sequel, which is due out in September: Ember Falls. Between these two a prequel was published, The Black Star of Kingston. There’s even talk of a movie version of The Green Ember.

It’s not an overtly Christian book, but there are spiritual parallels, mainly of a fractured, hurting world longing for its king to come, and many spiritual truths along the way. A good discussion of this aspect is in this review.

The illustrations by Zach Franzen are gorgeous. I was glad the Kindle included them.

If you’d like to read a much more enthusiastic review, see Carrie’s – or the great majority on Amazon or Goodreads.

Genre: Children’s fantasy
My rating: 7 out of 10
Objectionable elements: None except for those who might be very sensitive to the fighting. But it’s no more graphic than the Narnia or Tolkien books.
Recommendation: Yes, I gladly recommend it.

(This bit at the end is new to me – I’m borrowing and adapting it from what Rebekah does.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)





Book Review: Tuck Everlasting

TuckI hadn’t planned to read Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt until I saw Carrie’s review of it, and even then, it wasn’t high on the TBR list. But a couple of weeks ago I was looking for a quote about August and came across this one:

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot.”

It’s the opening sentence from Tuck Everlasting, and it so arrested me that I had to read the book. Thankfully it was available for the Kindle for a good price.

Ten year old Winnie Foster is contemplating running away. As an only child of a fairly strict and controlling family, she’s restless to get out from under the constant watchfulness and longs to do “something interesting–something that’s all mine. Something that would make some kind of difference in the world.” She can’t quite muster the courage to run away, but she does venture out into the woods near her family’s home, something she has never done before. She is startled to come upon a teenage boy drinking from a stream, and they converse easily. But when she wants a drink from the stream, he tries to keep her from doing so, which raises her ire. When the boy’s mother and brother happen along, they whisk Winnie away to their home.

After Winnie simmers down from being kidnapped, the Tuck family explains that they had to do what they did, and after they explain, they’ll be very glad to take her back home the next day. They share that 87 years ago, they came across this same woods and spring and drank from it, as did their horse. They didn’t know at first that anything was different. But when different ones of them had serious accidents but didn’t die, and after a while they realized that none of them was aging (not even the horse), they tried to trace back the cause. When they came back to the spring years later, the tree near where they stopped had not grown at all, and the “T” the father had carved there looked freshly done. So they covered up the spring with rocks. They could not stay in one place for long because when people noticed they didn’t age, they accused them of witchcraft.

Winnie isn’t sure she believes the story, but she likes the Tucks. The father, Angus, explains why it is so important for her to keep their secret. But what neither of them realize is that the secret is already out: a nameless man in a yellow suit has been following, questioning, and has overheard. But he’s not inclined to keep any secrets: in fact, he wants to profit by them.

I’ll leave the story there so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t read it. As I read, I kept wondering what the author was trying to say about life and death. But according to one interview, she said:

People are always looking for a lesson in it, but I don’t think it has one. It presents dilemmas, and I think that’s what life does! I dealt with a lot of dilemmas before I even started school. I think a lot of adults would like to think that things are simple for kids, but that’s not so. I get a lot of letters from students and teachers saying they spend a lot of time debating the things that happen in Tuck.… I think the book doesn’t present any lessons about what’s right and what’s wrong, but it does point out how difficult these decisions are.

(Warning: The interview does contain vital plot points, so it might be best read after reading the book.)

Each of the Tucks has a different viewpoint about their situation. The mother, Mae, feels that there is nothing they can do about it so they may as well make the best of it. The father, Tuck, mourns the fact that in the normal course of things, they’re “stuck,” that everything and everyone else is “moving and growing and changing” except for them.

Your time’s not now. But dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it’s useless, too. It don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.

Miles, the oldest son, has lost the most. He was married with two children when his wife noticed he wasn’t aging, and she took the children and left, fearing witchcraft. This was before they figured out what caused it, so he had no explanation. He tells Winnie, “It’s no good hiding yourself away, like Pa and lots of other people. And it’s no good just thinking of your own pleasure, either. People got to do something useful if they’re going to take up space in the world.”

And Jesse, forever seventeen, thinks life to be enjoyed to the hilt.

I’ve thought that if I had the option to stay forever at one certain age, which would I choose? I don’t know – they all have their advantages and disadvantages. But being stuck at one age, you would lose that anticipation of what’s around the next bend. Thankfully eternal life in heaven will be a different situation.

I thought the story was certainly interesting and thought-provoking, and the characters were well-drawn and likeable. But what stood out to me was Babbitt’s writing. Beside the quote at the beginning, these sentences or phrases stood out to me:

…A stationery cloud of hysterical gnats suspended in the heat above the road.

The toad…gave a heave of muscles and plopped its heavy mudball of a body a few inches farther away from her.

…An enormous tree thrust up, its thick roots rumpling the ground ten feet around in every direction.

The sun was dropping fast now, a soft red sliding egg yolk…

I have not seen the recent film, but I’d like to some day.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)




Book Review: The Wind in the Willows

I never read The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame as I was growing up: I don’t think I had even heard of it. I didn’t read it to my children, but we did watch a video of it which I thoroughly could not stand. It mainly focused on Toad’s misadventures with his car, and Toad just irritated me to no end.

But reading some of C. S. Lewis’s books over the last couple of years, particularly On Stories, I saw that he mentioned it quite a lot, and some of his comments spurred me to give it a try.

It begins with Mole getting exasperated by his spring cleaning and escaping out into the forest, running about to his heart’s content, until he comes to a river, which he has never seen before. Delighted by the sight, he notices the Water Rat, who invites him into his boat for a ride. Mole has never been in a boat and is thrilled. He ends up not only having a picnic with Rat, but going to stay at his house for a time and meeting Otter, Badger, and eventually Toad.

Otter is more of a secondary character, but Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad become fast friends. Badger is introverted and doesn’t come into society much, but is friendly when he does. He was an old friend of Toad’s father and is very wise. Rat loves his boat, believes “there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” and likes to write poetry and songs. Mole is an all-around good fellow but gets into trouble by extending himself past his experience and ability a couple of times, until near the end, when his doing so saves the day. Toad is rich, pompous, conceited, undisciplined, and goes full-bore into whatever his current interests are (and I still don’t like him very much. 🙂 ) When he discovers motor cars, he’s almost a lost cause.

There are almost two stories intertwined in the book: the raucous Toad’s pursuit of cars, wrecks, theft of one, imprisonment, disguise, escape, wild journey back home, and defense of his home from the weasels and stoats who overtook it while he was away, and then the quieter, gentler, homier experiences of the other animals. I like the second much better, but I understand that a book especially for children needs some action.

If I had to try to sum up what the book was about overall, the theme that comes to me is friendship. Each of the friends extends himself for the others at various points (except Toad, unless you want to count his final trying to rein himself in after several false repentances as an effort for his friends’ sake). They often inconvenience themselves greatly for each other, are kind to his others’ foibles, encourage and look out for each other.

There is one odd little section where Mole and Rat are helping to search for Otter’s lost little one and come upon the god Pan playing his pipes and watching over the little Otter. There reaction personifies reverence:

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently…

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously…

‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’

‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!’

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

I was curious to know what Grahame might have meant by it, especially since one of his previous books is titled Pagan Papers. I found a variety of opinions about it: one professing pagan fully embraced it as pagan worship and called Pan his favorite god; one thought it was a representation of Christ, as Aslan was in the Narnia books (and was taken to task in the comments); one thought it was a personification of nature. I still don’t know Grahame’s intention, though. I know C. S. Lewis used the mythic gods as something almost like superheroes, maybe just above or below the angels but definitely above man, yet in service to the one true God. I did read that some newer editions leave out this section, and I wasn’t the only reader that thought it was anomalous. But one of the posts I read – I forget which one – pointed out that though Pan made an appearance in person, his influence was all throughout the book. And when I went back and reread the first few pages, I thought that might be true: the way nature is spoken of is the same there as it is in the section with Pan. So I am a little wary: if I was reading this to my children, we’d have to have a discussion about it.

I went back and skimmed through the couple of books by C. S. Lewis looking for one quote in particular that most influenced me to read the book, and, frustratingly, I could not find it. If my memory is correct, I thought it had to do with dealing with ridiculous people (Toad in this case), and it helped me in regarding a ridiculous person or two in my acquaintance. But here are a few other quotes from Lewis about Wind in the Willows:

Does anyone believe that Kenneth Grahame made an arbitrary choice when he gave his principal character the form of a toad, or that a stag, a pigeon, a lion would have done as well? The choice is based on the fact that the real toad’s face has a grotesque resemblance to a certain kind of human face–a rather apoplectic face with a fatuous grin on it. This is, no doubt, an accident in the sense that all the lines which suggest the resemblance are really there for quite different biological reasons. The ludicrous quasi-human expression is therefore changeless: the toad cannot stop grinning because its ‘grin’ is not really a grin at all. Looking at the creature we thus see, isolated and fixed, an aspect of human vanity in its funniest and most pardonable form; following that hint Grahame creates Mr. Toad–an ultra-Jonsonian ‘humour’ (On Stories, p. 13).

It might be expected that such a book would unfit us for the harshness of reality and send us back to our daily lives unsettled and discontented. I do not find that it does so. The happiness which it presents to us is in fact full of the simplest and most attainable things–food, sleep, exercise, friendship, the face of nature, even (in a sense) religion. That ‘simple but sustaining meal’ of ‘bacon and broad beans and a macaroni pudding’ which Rat gave to his friends has, I doubt not, helped down many a real nursery dinner. And in the same way the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual (On Stories, p. 14. Incidentally, the paragraph just after this one contains the quote, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty–except, of course, books of information.”)

The Hobbit escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot and excitement by a very curious shift of tone. As the humour and homeliness of the early chapters, the sheer ‘Hobbitry’, dies away we pass insensibly into the world of epic. It is as if the battle of Toad Hall had become a serious heimsókn and Badger had begun to talk like Njal (On Stories, p. 18).

I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last (On Stories, essay “On Three Ways of Writing For Children,” p. 33).

Consider Mr Badger… that extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness and goodness. The child who has once met Mr Badger has ever afterwards, in its bones, a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way (On Stories, “On Three Ways of Writing For Children,” (p. 37).

If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables…A dim perception of the richness inherent in this kind of unity is one reason why we enjoy a book like The Wind in the Willows; a trio such as Rat, Mole, and Badger symbolises the extreme differentiation of persons in harmonious union, which we know intuitively to be our true refuge both from solitude and from the collective (The Weight of Glory, essay “Membership,” p. 165).

That last one may have been the one I was searching for initially, because I remembered it had to do with unity among different kinds of people. But I had thought the quote I had in mind mentioned Toad specifically and had the word “ridiculous” in it, so maybe not.

I’ve been giving Toad a hard time, but some people do find him lovable and funny despite his foibles.

Now, for a few favorite quotes from the book itself:

He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed 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, 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.

They braced themselves for the last long stretch, the home stretch, the stretch that we know is bound to end, some time, in the rattle of the door-latch, the sudden firelight, and the sight of familiar things greeting us as long-absent travellers from far over-sea…

We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s inter-communications with his surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the word ‘smell,’ for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling. It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, even while yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he first found the river! And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in. Since his escape on that bright morning he had hardly given it a thought, so absorbed had he been in his new life, in all its pleasures, its surprises, its fresh and captivating experiences. 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.

The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.

Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!’ ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company.

Another theme in the book seems to be the contrast between going on adventures – usually fun and enlightening – and coming home, even more delightful.

I did not find a lot of biographical information about Grahame online or in the sketches in the books I looked at, but they all said this book grew out of stories he used to tell to his only son, Alastair. The son seemed to have a number of problems, and Toad was based on his personality. Sadly, Alastair took his own life as a young adult.

I listened to an audiobook version, and sampled several narrations before choosing the one I initially did. Unfortunately I had not listened far enough to catch the character voices, and that narrator’s voice for Mole was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Thankfully Audible allows returns, so I exchanged that one for this one narrated by Michael Hordern, and found it much more cozy and not at all grating.

WillowsAnd though I very much enjoyed the audiobook, I felt this book might best be enjoyed in a full-color illustrated version. I tried this Kindle one, but the pictures were very small. The only copy I could find in our nearby branch library just had line drawings by Ernest Shepard rather than color illustrations, but after I got over their not being in color, the drawings did enhance the story a lot. I had not thought of Toad as comical (though he is supposed to be) until seeing Shepherd’s illustrations, especially of Toad’s disguise as a washerwoman. Shepard includes a nice introduction about showing his drawings to Grahame.


I hope you’ll forgive the length of this review. It’s more than a review, really: I like to try to note my thoughts and reactions for my own benefit and memory rather than just writing a shorter and more focused review like you’d find on Amazon or Goodreads, but that means some of it might be extraneous to my readers.

Except for the odd bit about Pan, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and understand why it is a classic. I am glad I finally read it and imagine I will turn to it again some time.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)


Laudable Linkage

I’m back with my periodic round-up of note-worthy reads discovered online in the last couple of weeks:

Called Out to Gather. Good discussion of the Biblical teaching about the church.

Spiritual Drafting and the Dangers of Christian Complacency. “We all benefit from observing other Christians and seeing how they live the Christian life. This is God’s grace to us, giving us men and women who are worthy of imitation, putting people in our lives who are stronger than we are spiritually. But having such strong believers in our lives is meant to drive us to imitate them, not to simply take advantage of their efforts. Their example is meant to spur us on to greater earnestness in our spiritual lives, greater discipline in our pursuit of holiness.”

When NOT Helping Hurts. A missionary wrestles with the dilemma of when help is actually needed and when it fosters dependency.

Three Things You Should Not Say to a Newlywed.

Lessons From Little People: Life at Child Speed. Some go forward at full-tilt, some like to stop and explore and ponder.

Evolution and a Universe as Young as Humanity.

Hermeneutical Fidelity – Key Bible Passages in the Same Sex Marriage Debate. Answers to revisionist interpretations concerning homosexuality.

Why N. D. Wilson Writes Scary Stories for Children. I’ve not read one of his books, but his philosophy here reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s quote that to withhold “the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil…would be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

And I thought this was cute, especially how much the dog’s tail was wagging all the way through!

Happy Saturday!