When I was 10 or 11 my family became acquainted with a very old, and very wealthy lady named Mrs. Marsh. Mrs. Marsh lived in Duxbery Massachusetts all alone in a very beautiful English style home that looked out over the harbor. She had a fine garden, a library stuffed with books floor to ceiling, a large kitchen you could cook anything you wanted in for as many people as you knew (and all the people they knew, too), but she was blind and couldn’t much take care of herself anymore since her husband had died many years before. So my family helped her out with taking care of the house, the shopping, and some basic work for the house. We also read to her since she loved books but because she could no longer see, requested that she be read to.
Upstairs, through a concealed passage connecting to a room above the garage, was a room set up as an old school room. There was a chalkboard and desks, and even books for children to read. The room hadn’t been used in decades and was dusty and everything old, but it reminded me of the scene near the end of this novel where Toad sings his final song about himself to himself. One last act of selfish bravado before “growing up”.
Just a year later I would find myself having to move out of the home I grew up in, having to leave the valley and the river I had played along everyday since I had been born. I remember doing what Elspeth Huxley did in her novel, The Flame Trees of Thika, and kissed all four walls of my childhood home hoping that would mean I would one day get to come back – but I never did. My childhood stopped (a little bit) that day, and I physically left behind the first part of my life.
After that was Jr High, bad grades, worse friends, and a steady decline in any innocent childhood until I was shipped all the way out to Colorado. In fact I haven’t been back to Massachusetts except once since leaving – and that was over 20 years ago.
But this book reminded me of those days, of those comforts that you have as a child – those attachments to things, the attachments to people you cared about, the attachments to long, lazy days along a river, or laying under the sticky pines, or playing baseball in the spare lot. Days where friendships, and battles, and adventures where almost common, where everything was wondrous and sometimes even a little frighteningly mysterious.
Being a child is a lot like being one of the animal characters in this book. I think that’s why the animals seem to occupy a world with real people in the book, even interact with them, because they are living side by side, yet seeing the world so differently. This is why Toad can operate a car and not operate it well at all just as a child would crash it into a lake at high speed. This is why they can spend all day on the river or have everything seem to be provided for them – because it is being provided for – by the parents. Mole, Ratty, Badger, Otter, and Toad – along with all the other animals, are the neighborhood kids and the only time we meet a person is when they are in positions of authority or responsibility. That’s the only time we care about adults.
I think you could make a parallel between my interpretation of the animals here and how Richard Hughes creates his children characters in A High Wind in Jamaica. The kids in that book occupy their own world, and while not totally indifferent to the adults in their world, they see the adults as some distant land of foreigners, quickly forgotten and somewhat mistrusted.
And yet we do end with the growth of one of the characters, Toad, who sees that he will have to grow at least a little, become a grown up, think of others more often, and put aside his own foolishness and selfishness and pride. And it’s a sad ending too because for as much of a pain Toad is, we can’t help but not only like him, but want to BE him, too. Because we were all Toad once.
Though I’m not 90 and not blind like Mrs. Marsh, I do find myself having more in common with her than with my younger self as I think about this book. That wondrous world of willows and a magical Piper at the Gates of Dawn does not exist for me anymore, it’s nearly as dim as it is to the blind. And the old schoolroom is just as empty for me, full of dust as it had once been full of children. The desks all lined up still, but not for me.
We all have to grow up, but we can at least remember.