For my first book report of fifth grade, I picked “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame. Well, not really. I didn’t know what to pick. I asked my mom what book I should read and she showed me “Anne of Green Gables” and said that she loved it when she was a girl. I saw the cover with a girl and a horse and some flowers and I said that I’d get beat up if I read a girl’s book. My dad isn’t into books, so I asked Uncle Kevin. He’s been staying with us since right after Labor Day. He said that “The Wind in the Willows” was a classic that every kid should read. He showed it to me. I liked the pictures, and it was long enough for the assignment but not too long, and I kind of like Uncle Kevin (even if I don’t know him very well), so I asked my mom if I could read it. She said she’d heard of it but never read it. I told her that Uncle Kevin recommended it. Mom really doesn’t trust Uncle Kevin right now, even if they are brother and sister, so she looked at the book more closely. The cover of the book said, “old fashioned” and “heartwarming.” Mom saw that and said, “What’s the harm?” So that’s how I picked this book.
“The Wind in the Willows” is full of talking animals. They aren’t magical or anything, they just talk. The three main animals are Mole, Rat (often called Ratty), and Mister Toad. The names let you know what kind of animals they are. Badger is another main animal, or character, but mostly in the second half of the book. There are other talking animals, too, like Otter. But it’s confusing that some other animals are referred to as “a stoat,” not Stoat or Mister Stoat. (A stoat is like a ferret—I had to look it up.)
I think Mister Toad is the only one called Mister because he seems to be the richest of all the animals. He lives in the biggest house in the area, called Toad Hall. He inherited it from his father. Mister Toad also has a bunch of boats that he never uses. I guess he’s the One Percent that my mom is always complaining about, only for animals.
I thought the whole book was kind of confusing. Not the story itself—it’s clear enough who supposedly says and does what and what supposedly happens. And I could even accept that animals talked in the story. I mean, you see that all the time in cartoons and movies. But these animals talked to other species. I would have thought that at least toads speak a completely different language compared to moles and rats because toads are amphibians, and the others are mammals. Even worse, there are parts where the animals are talking to people! How’s a person going to talk with a toad who isn’t magical or cursed? That’s what I would have expected, some sort of explanation for conversations between people and animals. Except there’s no magic in the story like there is in Harry Potter. But for the sake of getting this report done, I went along with the whole talking part.
But after a while, there were just too many weird things for me to ignore.
For instance, there’s what the animals-slash-characters eat. The author is often talking about meals like breakfast or luncheon or supper and listing foods like quince jelly and turnips and biscuits. But he also talks about hams and sausages and cold tongue. I mean, those are other animals! The animals are eating other animals! I know that happens in nature, in the real world, but it makes no sense in what is supposed to be a kid’s book. Worse, in one part, Mister Toad agrees with another character about how tasty some rabbits would be. But earlier in the book, rabbits are actual talking characters. What kind of kid’s book has characters eating other characters?
I asked my mom about whether characters in kids’ books should eat other characters, even if it was main characters eating minor characters or animals that were the same species as minor characters. She made a face and asked to see the book again. She flipped through the pages, skimmed a few parts, handed it back to me, and said that’s why she wants me to be a vegan like she is now, but it’s got to be my choice and don’t tell my dad she said anything.
And another thing, almost all the characters are guys: Mole, Ratty, Badger, Mr. Toad, the stoats and weasels and rabbits. These guys do all the adventures—messing about in boats (as Ratty says), exploring the woods, searching for lost kids of fellow animals, stealing cars, escaping from prison, and waging civil war. (More about that later.) But the guys also do all the chores like cooking and washing dishes and cleaning house. I suppose that’s good. But there’s so much talk of cooking and eating and chores. The book starts with Mole doing the spring cleaning at his house, but he gets so annoyed with it that he just leaves. Almost immediately he encounters Ratty and starts living with him, the rat, in his hole-slash-home in the riverbank. The two of them go boating together and cook together and have a picnic. I started to wonder if this book was like that “A Tale of Two Daddies” book that Uncle Kevin tried to give me last year, but my dad said I absolutely cannot read. Ever.
Dad and Uncle Kevin had a long talk after that—and that was before Uncle Kevin moved in with us.
There are a couple of female characters, but they are human. One is the jailer’s daughter who does the laundry at the prison where her dad works. She helps Mister Toad escape from prison. (More about that later.) She’s supposed to be a “good, kind, clever girl” but I don’t believe that. I guess she’s clever because she planned and pulled off a prison escape. But isn’t that a crime? Plus, her dad got her a government job where he works. I thought that was a crime, too, so I looked it up. It’s called “nepotism” and it’s definitely a crime but apparently it happens a lot these days.
I wanted to ask my mom about the nepotism, but I thought she might take the book away, which would mean I’d have to start this project all over again, so I asked my dad. This was last Sunday during the football game. Dad said nepotism was the only way that Liberals and Fairies and Uncle Kevin could get a job. I said that I didn’t know what Liberals were but there weren’t any fairies in the book because there was no magic and that I couldn’t speak for Uncle Kevin. Dad said that the game was going into overtime and to get him another beer.
He never did give me an answer.
I don’t think that the author meant to encourage nepotism.
But Mister Toad troubled me the most.
The author made Mister Toad a bragger and a showoff. That’s okay. A story needs characters like that. But Mister Toad is also a disaster—and a criminal! He’s rich enough that he can hop (see what I did there?) from one expensive hobby to the next. At the start of the story, he’s given up boating on the river, which is what Ratty loves and Mole learns to love too, to go camping in a gypsy caravan. I had to look that up—it’s a horse-drawn cart that you can sleep it. Toad being Toad, he convinces Mole and Ratty to go camping with him in his caravan, except when he learns that camping takes work, he makes Ratty and Mole do most all the chores. On the second day of their caravan trip, they get run off the road by a “motorcar.” I wondered why the author kept using that word instead of just writing “car.” It turns out that when the book was written in 1908 cars were a new thing. That explains why the caravan’s horse would get scared by the motorcar and run off and crash the caravan and throw Mister Toad and Ratty and Mole in a ditch.
That’s how Mister Toad fell in love with motorcars.
I had a hard time picturing Mister Toad driving a motorcar. The author doesn’t go into the comparative biology of animals and people in the book, but I assume that even if Mister Toad was closer to human sized than frog sized, he’d still be very short by human standards. I mean, if you have a six-foot toad walking around in your book, that’s more of a monster story! So, if Toad is small by human standards, how do his frog legs reach the pedals of an old-fashioned motor car? How does he see over the steering wheel? And if he’s truly human size, who is selling motorcars to a man-sized non-magical toad?
But anyway, Toad does manage to buy, and crash, seven motorcars. Seven! He’s crazy. He goes to the hospital three different times and pay a bunch of fines. I guess the One Percent can afford health insurance and legal fees. His friends Mole and Rat and Badger try to get Toad to stop. They even lock him up in his house for his own good. But Toad escapes and goes for lunch at the pub. While he’s at the pub he sees a fancy new motorcar parked outside. He steals the car, wrecks it (wreck number eight) and is caught by the police. He’s sentenced to 20 years for grand theft auto and insulting a police officer.
I don’t think that the author meant to encourage theft or reckless driving. But that’s just the start of things.
Mister Toad is barely a week into his 20-year sentence when he bribes the prison laundry lady, the daughter of the jailer, to help him escape. See what nepotism will get you? Disguised as another laundry lady, Mister Toad walks right out the front doors of the prison. Really? I don’t think that a dress and a bonnet are going to hide a human-sized toad, regardless of whether he’s short or tall. But somehow nobody in the prison or the town spots him. He manages to con a train conductor into giving him a free ride. Finally, the police board on a second train and chase Mister Toad. Right after his train passes through a tunnel, he hops off (see what I did there?) and hides in some bushes. The police never find him.
Next, the fugitive Mister Toad (disguised as a laundry lady) cons his way onto the horse-drawn canal boat of another laundry lady. She agrees to give him a lift back to his house in exchange for him doing some of her laundry work for her. Of course, Mister Toad doesn’t know how to do laundry and screws it all up. The other laundry lady spotted him for a laundry fake right away. But not for a human-sized toad! She flings him off the boat in a way that suggest Mister Toad is closer to toad-sized than human sized, continuing the confusion. Once in the water, Toad can barely swim. (I thought all amphibians could swim.)
Mister Toad then steals the laundry lady’s horse and rides off. He meets a gypsy and sells him the stolen horse in exchange for some money and breakfast. With his stomach and pockets full, Toad starts walking down the road towards his house.
Then he flags down a passing car and—get this—it’s the exact same car he stole a week earlier! I guess car mechanics were a lot faster back then. Uncle Kevin just about totaled his car over Labor Day weekend, and it’s been nearly a month and he’s still living with us and driving Mom’s car when she lets him. Anyway, the owners of the car don’t recognize the big, or huge, toad who previously stole their car, so they give him a ride. Mister Toad is such a con man that he convinces them to let him drive their car again. I mean, come on!
Even the author maybe had enough at this point. He makes Mister Toad confess his true identity to the idiots with the motorcar. A fight breaks out in the speeding car, causing another crash (wreck number nine). Toad is thrown free of the crash and lands in a pond. By now, the police are once again gaining on the fugitive felon. He runs away and falls into the river, which just happens to take him directly to Rat’s hole in the riverbank, which he (the rat) shares with Mole even though supposedly they are just friends who do a lot of eating and chores and day trips together.
At this point, I stopped reading and asked Uncle Kevin why he recommended this confusing and sketchy book in the first place.
He asked how far I’d read and I told him all the bits I just told you.
Uncle Kevin explained that what Badger and Ratty and Mole did to Mister Toad when they locked him up and forbid him to drive was called an intervention. Interventions don’t work, Uncle Kevin said. They don’t work for toads and they don’t when someone just happens to have a car accident–which was not their fault–after spending the afternoon at the winery concert with a data analyst who has both brains and shoulders. And while he liked me very much, it wasn’t his idea to live in this rat hole of a suburb until he could find another car and another job and another place to live.
I said I didn’t understand.
Uncle Kevin looked at me and messed up my hair and apologized. He said he remembered liking the book when he was little but that maybe times have changed.
He asked to see the book again and I gave it to him.
He flipped through the pages. He told me that I was “perceptive.” The book only got weirder at the end, he said. The stoats and weasels take over Mister Toad’s house and turn it into an armed compound. Mole and Ratty and Badger help Mister Toad take back his house in an animal “civil war.” To celebrate winning the war, they have a banquet. Mister Toad swears he’ll be humble and sober ever after. The police never find the fugitive felon, even though he’s living at Toad Hall which has been the big, well-known home of the Toad family for at least two generations.
Uncle Kevin handed the book back to me. He told me that I obviously knew enough to finish my book report and probably get an ‘A’ on it.
I thanked him for helping me with my homework, and that while I liked having him stay with us for the past few weeks, I hoped that he found a new car and job and a place to live that wasn’t a rat hole.