What I’m (Re-)Reading
By Clea Simon
I’m writing again. I’m always writing, but what I’d really like to be doing is mucking about in boats. For although anyone walking into my book-strewn office might think they see an adult female human seated at her desk, in my heart of hearts I am much smaller and covered in fur.
Maybe it’s because I write about cats – both in my nonfiction and, more recently, in my two mystery series. Maybe it’s because of all the discussion in the media about YA and “adult” fiction, about what we should read and what we do read. Whatever the source, I have learned to accept this truth: In my heart of hearts, I am one of the strange and personable animals who populate Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.”
I might be Rat, not a nasty city creature but a river rat, whom we first meet as he readies his handylittle rowboat for an excursion. Stuck here at my desk, I often feel like old Badger, who stays grumbling in his den unless serious action is called for. Many times, I know, I act like Toad of Toad Hall, carried away by my enthusiasms and impulsive actions. But in my heart, I am Mole, clumsy and bumbling, an innocent at heart who emerges out of his hole (and his spring cleaning) just as I do when a manuscript has finally been submitted, blinking and amazed by the great world around me. As Mole and Rat set out on the river – and on their adventure – I rediscover a universe outside of my den once again too.
Grahame’s 1908 classic has sentimental appeal for me. While I have browsed with interest (i.e., book lust) the 2009 The Annotated Wind in the Willows (Norton), the one I invariably return to is my trusty 1970s Magnum paperback, “larger type for easy reading,” which introduced me to this marvelous fantasy tale back when reading was still a relatively new joy. Given to me by a beloved camp counselor one summer when I was stuck, sick with fever, in the camp infirmary for what seemed an interminable period, it is dog-eared and yellowed. Its cover illustration – Toad in his motorcar, chasing Rat and Mole off the road – evokes memories of that infirmary stay, the sick weariness and the white tiles. But it also calls to mind the escape that a great book provides. As I set off with Mole and Rat, I am freed from illness and infirmity. I am, rather like that reckless Toad, having an adventure.
A recent re-reading of this odd little classic reminded me quite strongly of two things. The first is how much I envy any of you who haven’t read it yet. You have a great discovery ahead of you – the story of a friendship, of trials faced, and battles won. A truly magical and fully imagined world set in the quiet English countryside.
The second realization is how unlikely a children’s book this is. While critics have pointed out the oddity of one particular chapter in which the pagan god Pan appears and helps find a lost baby Otter, others note the strange proportions of a book in which toads drive motor cars and are arrested by human police. Still others tut-tut about the real sense of danger that pervades these small animals’ sojourn in the great woods.
These traits do make the book interesting reading – and re-reading – for us more adult readers, and each time I pick it up again, I am surprised once more by its audacity. But although “Wind in the Willows” is unique, it is not alone. As any fan of C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” or any number of more contemporary dystopian YA novels knows, children can read difficult books, with scary themes and complicated issues at stake. They want to. In the pages of a book, we can conquer the world.
Which may explain why I re-read this book (as well as the others mentioned above) at regular intervals. Maybe it is a children’s classic, aimed at little ones who are learning about the larger world. But “The Wind in the Willows” is also a book for all of us. In our hearts, we are all small and tender creatures, bracing ourselves to face the great Wild Wood. In our hearts, we are all Mole.
Clea Simon is the author of 16 mysteries, all of which involve animals. Her latest, Stages of Grey: A Dulcie Schwartz feline mystery (Severn House) was published on Oct. 1. She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com