The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
When I told my friend Sarah, who had done her MA thesis on adaptations of children's books, that I'd just read Wind, she asked me two serious question. (1) Did you like it? (Answer: yes, which was clearly the right answer and the one least likely to cause me bodily harm.) and (2) Who did you think was the hero, Mole or Toad?
It didn't take me more than a second. "Initially Mole, but I think Toad hijacked the book halfway through." Then we bs'd a bit about that and Milne's play adaptation of the novel, Toad of Toad Hall.
And while I did like this book, a few things stood out to me. First, the prose is suprisingly literary -- especially insofar as I've come to expect that children's lit writers try to simplify their prose as much as possible. (Baum's prose was almost insultingly simple.) In fact, I tended to skip the long descriptive passages, especially of nature -- as much as people tell me such things are important, I still continue to be unexpressably bored by them. No one ever got a revelation about human nature from talking about the grasses growing along a riverbank.
Anyway, let's talk Toad. I initially thought him amusing. Then I really grew to hate him. I mean, hate him.
We'll start off by situating a basic feature of Wind: it seems extremely geared to the comfortably middle-class young adult. All the characters have lavish breakfasts (and in fact there's plenty of food-porn here -- although why is Badger serving ham? Isn't that akin to cannibalism?) and the novel really puts forth the importance of the idea of "home." Mole gets quite nostalgic about his, and so do all the others. It made me wonder what someone who did not have a stable home, or a comfortable home, would make of this book, or to someone who had a home they absolute hated.
But Toad. Toad's basically an English country gentleman. He doesn't have to work for a living, having inherited a quite comfortable income, and he fritters away this income on increasingly eccentric hobbies. Besides having a jovial sort of charm that his friends find endearing, he does no good to anyone that I can see. He basks in class privilege, and he's a burden to his friends, none of whom are as well off as he. He also abuses people who have to work for a living -- first the unattractive female washerwoman who helps him get out of prison, then the unattractive barge-woman from whom he steals a horse. He's still a good comic character, but he's also a good bit funnier for anyone with lingering rosy feelings about the gentlemanly upper-classes. I really want to call Toad a more benign, less fascist version of Donald Trump, although I suppose that comparison still wouldn't work too far.
Winne the Pooh & The House on Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne
I liked these two books, the best of the children's lit I'd read recently. I vaguely remembered the Disney cartoon, but I especially wanted to read these thanks to Frederick Crews's two brilliant parodies of academic criticism, The Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh.
Things I noticed, in no particular order.
- These books are hilarious. I laughed out loud several times.
- Although not as consciously "literary" as Grahame's style (which works to Milne's benefit), Milne's prose nevertheless sounds quite nice.
- I was also struck by the basic narrative technique. Milne presents these stories being told in real time to Christopher Robin, his son, and there's often a feeling that the outcome of a chapter changes in real time in response to Christopher's response to the story being told. I found that strangely charming.
- And I really liked Winnie's and friends' struggles with reading. And their journey to the North Pole. And getting Eeyore a house. And Piglet's worry about "fierce" animals. And Owl pretending to be smarter than he really is. As someone whose last name is "wise," I can thoroughly relate.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
Alas, then there's this one. I remember the movie quite well -- and now I realize that every change the movie made was for the better. Wizard's episodic plot really got on my nerves, especially since every new chapter loved to repeat the quest-object of every major character. How many times, really, do we need to hear that the Scarecrow needed a brain, etc., etc.? The confrontation with the Wicked Witch of the West was over in a page or two, so has none of the narrative suspense of the film. The flying monkeys were a yawn-inducing deus ex machina for several plot-points. And I found it weird that Baum kept repeating that it's okay to kill witches so long as they're really wicked. It made me wonder if he had a mother-in-law who he considered a witch, and he was hoping some adolescent would take care of his problem for him.
Anyway, not much else worth talking about with this one. I'm surprised that the book became such a classic; there just seemed to be little actually engaging about it.