Reading and the Celebration of Spring

Spring is not only a good time for reading—although what season isn’t—it’s a time of year that features into many of my favourite books. Spring is a time of transition, but more than that, it’s a time the world explodes into new life. If you live, like me, anywhere north of the forty-ninth parallel, you know that we sometimes bypass spring altogether and go straight to summer. Technically speaking, spring begins with the vernal equinox, but sometimes it takes a while to get some traction, especially in a place like Edmonton.
Here are three passages from favourite books that note the interesting, changeable, and verdant nature of spring. Spring is the herald of new life, but sometimes, too, it’s the herald of new adventure. So take care the next time you leave your front door.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, `Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.
“This is fine!” he said to himself. “This is better than whitewashing!” The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow till he reached the hedge on the further side.

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Spring had come once more to Green Gables the beautiful capricious, reluctant Canadian spring, lingering along through April and May in a succession of sweet, fresh, chilly days, with pink sunsets and miracles of resurrection and growth. The maples in Lover’s Lane were red budded and little curly ferns pushed up around the Dryad’s Bubble. Away up in the barrens, behind Mr. Silas Sloane’s place, the Mayflowers blossomed out, pink and white stars of sweetness under their brown leaves. All the school girls and boys had one golden afternoon gathering them, coming home in the clear, echoing twilight with arms and baskets full of flowery spoil.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Sam sat silent and said no more. He had a good deal to think about. For one thing, there was a lot to do up in the Bag End garden, and he would have a busy day tomorrow, if the weather cleared. The grass was growing fast. But Sam had more on his mind than gardening. After a while he sighed, and got up and went out.
It was early April and the sky was now clearing after heavy rain. The sun was down, and a cool pale evening was quietly fading into night. He walked home under the early stars through Hobbiton and up the Hill, whistling softly and thoughtfully.
It was just at this time that Gandalf reappeared after his long absence. …

Adult Nostalgia and Children’s Classics

I first discovered fanfiction at a Harry Potter Con a few years ago in San Francisco—appropriately enough. It reminded me at the time that I tend to live my life under a large literary rock. The Internet is full of fanfiction sites. If you are unaware of fanfic, then tread carefully, especially if you are checking out fanfic sites of your favourite series. I only ever read fanfic occasionally, but as someone who encourages reading, writing, and writing about reading, I can hardly criticize such endeavours. Popular culture reproduces and responds to books and films in many ways, but the cultural response to and definition of what have come to be called children’s classics emerges, in part, from nostalgic adults who are attached to their reading experiences of such books.
But when is fanfic no longer fanfic? If you are a published author, then it’s called a sequel—apparently. Earlier this year a colleague recommended to me William Horwood’s Tales of the Willows series. These books were published in the 90s. But don’t give me too hard a time for not knowing about them earlier. Remember, I live under a rock.
The Willows in Winter, Toad Triumphant, The Willows and Beyond, and The Willows at Christmas are four short books by William Horwood, who, as you might guess, picks up the story of Mole, Rat, Badger, Toad, and Otter from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.
The Wind in the Willows found its way onto my literary landscape early in my reading life. I remember my mother reading it out loud to me, and I read it later again and again. I’ve even taught the book a couple of times. Teaching the book to a children’s literature class, however, can get problematic. For one, the book has no sympathetic female characters, and the River Bank itself is populated only by males. As my children’s literature classes are mostly female students, you can guess the response. Fortunately for me, my classes are filled with bright students, who are both critical and forgiving readers, so we talk about it, and no one trashes the book. Teaching Tolkien’s The Hobbit presents me with the same problem—no female characters. I got used to identifying the fact right away, so no one is stewing over it while I gush about the book.
Back to Horwood. When an author picks up a story and creates his or her own, I never quite know what to do with it. But that’s just me. If you are looking for further adventures with Mole, Rat, and the rest, then you won’t be disappointed. Horwood works hard to remain true to Grahame’s style, and the various adventures of toad are as whacky and thoughtless as in the original book.
I read The Willows and Beyond first, which may have been a mistake. This book introduces the next generation—as it were—and it sees the return of such characters as the Sea Rat. But the paradise of the River Bank has become infected, which leads to (spoiler alert here) the dissolution of this particular utopia. Goodbye golden age.
I loved the adventures of Toad, but I think even more I loved the insular nature of the River Bank. It was a place set apart—safe and yet full of manageable danger and adventure. It was a place that spoke to me of home, of friendship, and days without end.
My sense of the River Bank as a place set apart comes right from the first chapter of the book. Mole asks about what he sees in the blue distance, something that might be the smoke of towns, and he gets a careful admonishment from Rat:
“Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,” said the Rat. “And that’s something that doesn’t matter, either to you or me. I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all. Don’t ever refer to it again, please. Now then! Here’s our backwater at last, where we’re going to lunch.”
Rat and Mole in fact visit the Wide World during their adventures with toad, but that never took away from my sense of the River Bank as a world set apart. Perhaps this is my own nostalgia in operation, but I don’t care.
If you don’t want anyone, not even an author, messing with your books and the worlds you hold dear, then I would avoid fanfic and writers such as Horwood. But if you want more of the world of the willows and the River Bank, then check out these books. They aren’t long, so get them all, find a quiet place, and feast on these new adventures with familiar characters.