The book I remember most fondly from my childhood would have to be Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.
I’m not sure how old I was when I first read it, but I must have been quite young because I remember it as being my first ‘big’ book and I also recall feeling a sense of accomplishment, as well as a little amazement, the first time that I managed to make it all the way through to the end. It probably remains the only book from my childhood that I’ve re-read a number of times over the years.
One of the things that made WITW so memorable for me was that it was my first real experience of reading a story that drew me completely in to another world – the world of the woodlands and the riverbank. Right from the start, I really wanted to be there with Ratty and Moley ‘messing about in boats’ and in a way of course, I was. Whenever I reached the end of the story and turned that last page, the magical world of WITW was one that I always regretted having to leave.
But even more than the setting, it was the wonderful cast characters I loved: mild mannered, timid Moley with his hidden strengths; good old, reliable and friendly Ratty; gruff but wise and inspirational Mr Badger; and finally, that loosest of all loose canons, the conceited and incurably over-enthusiastic Mr Toad.
Who would have ever thought that a rat, a mole, a badger and a toad could be so appealing? I think perhaps for me, it was the innate warmth and decency of the characters, particularly Moley and Ratty, along with their loyalty, courage and especially their friendship that I’ve always loved the most. (Although I do acknowledge the fact that it is a very heavily male-dominated cast.)
But what a story! You’d be forgiven for thinking that a tale about a bunch of woodland creatures would be fairly mild and underwhelming. But nothing could be further from the truth. WITW contains among other things: boating mishaps, a caravan road trip, the dangers of the Wild Woods, grand theft auto, multiple car crashes, a house arrest, police chases, a court room drama, a 20 year prison sentence, an escape by a cross-dressing toad, a fugitive on the run, a pitched battle against an army of mansion invading weasels, stoats and ferrets, a lost son and even a mystical encounter with the god Pan! Could you really ask for anything more?
Sometimes when you re-read a favourite book from your youth, it doesn’t quite live up to your memories. Although I’ve not read WITW from beginning to end for many years, when my children Meg and Joe were little one of our family’s favourite videos was a terrific animated musical version of it that we watched repeatedly and always sang along to.
I can’t see WITW with its wonderful depiction of both simple pleasures and grand adventures ever losing its appeal for me. I’m sure I’ll always be drawn to this tale of a trio of unlikely companions who band together in the name of friendship, to save another friend – albeit a wildly incorrigible, ungrateful and pompous one – from himself.
Michael’s most recent book is: Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel (2011) Omnibus Books/Scholastic Australia. For more, see Michael’s blog at www. michaelgerardbauer.wordpress.com.