Mr Toad

Mr Toad was arrested for stealing a motor-car and being cheeky to the police. That was my day; I have a cold (which L insists did not originate from his virus) and stayed in all day reading and sleeping. I want the cold to be over with quickly so I'll be in shape for chemo on Monday. If chemo gets a late start, then its ending with be late. So far it's set to end in early August. When I'm sick or upset I reach for the classics. For the easy books. Either out of comfort or laziness I read children's books and teen books. And when I go home to visit my mother I read the old books: Louisa May Alcott's lesser-known sequels to Little Women, Judy Bolton mysteries and A Little Princess. Here I just have a handful of the old comfort books. There's Fifteen by Beverly Cleary, with my older sister's name written in cursive and crossed out. Then: This belongs to (her name), with my name added in a different pen and handwriting. I thought everything that was hers should rightfully belong to me, just as I thought her bedtime should become mine. Fifteen is one of the Scholastic Books we'd order in the classroom. When I first read Fifteen I was probably eight or ten, and 15 seemed very old. Now I'm older than her parents. When I read Little Women when I was in second grade I tried to make analogies for 19th-century items I couldn't quite fathom. I couldn't tell the difference between a fancy coach and a plain one. (I still can't. A fiacre is one or the other.) I wasn't sure what all the parts of clothing were. I didn't know what blanc-mange was. Did I think to look it up? Maybe not. I remember asking my mother what a receipt-book was. Did she know it was a recipe book that Meg (in a sequel) couldn't figure out well? I remember asking my parents what Hogwash was, and not getting a satisfactory answer. That was from another book. When I read Fifteen now, I wonder if teens were ever this innocent, and parents so trusting. It takes to end of the book for the girl and boy to kiss. Her parents never have to meet his parents or find out exactly who they are.

A gentleman in his 70s gave me this copy of Wind in the Willows. It was printed in China and sold at Borders. I was skeptical about his enthusiasm for it. Now that I reread it, I'm surprised by its sophistication. I read a portion today about a spiritual experience that Mole and Rat have while looking for Otter's runaway son. Then see God, their God, who is Pan, with his hooves and horns and pan-pipes, and the sight is so magnificent that He must make them forget it. I read about an intervention with Toad. His friends keep watch over him so he won't order another motor-car and ruin it. This works for a while but he tricks them and sneaks out.

I don't quite understand how the animals and humans co-exist., and why some animals are characters and others are just animals. Toad is put in a human prison with human jailers. The daughter of the old jailer has pets,which she discreetly doesn't mention. to Toad. Even he, when not in captivity, has a pet bird in a cage. Other animals are undifferentiated. In another part of the book we see a herd of sheep, unclothed, who speak. The animals have money (which Toad inherited) but it's unclear where his friends' spending money comes from, how they buy their statues and paintings and jackets and shoes and boats. These questions bother me some. They didn't bother me as a child. I didn't think about why there was only one Mole or Rat or Toad. I didn't wonder about amphibians who ate ham and eggs and sardines. But what amazes me is the sophistication of the animals' personalities. Toad is easily chagrined, will take criticism from his friends, but is in sway to his addiction to a new hobby; for most of the book it's motor-cars. He reminded me of a friend. Which I would never say. Mr Toad is much more complex, in some ways, than Jane, the protagonist of Fifteen. She doesn't do anything that matches the mystical experience of Mole and Toad. Or display anything like the deep hunger River Rat gets to follow a traveling Sea Rat to places unknown. That deep longing for something else, to abandon the familiar for the exotic, to finally be like the birds who leave North every year because they are called South. River Rat is undergoing a fundamental crisis about, as William Morris put it, "how we live and how we might live." Those are essential ponderings.

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

I loved Fifteen, although I remember nothing about it today. I just read Beverly Cleary's Ramona books to/with my 6-year old, though. They really do paint a picture of a very innocent time. Also, I had never noticed (or did not remember) that there;s a lot in those books about how Ramona's family doesn't have any money. And there are some nice little puzzles left for the reader to figure out. (My favorite was when Ramona was late to school because she is told to leave home at a quarter past 8, and so she leaves at 8:25. Because a quarter is 25 cents -- it must be 25 minutes.
I also just finished reading Stuart Little with him. That's a book with some nice puzzles -- not least how Mrs. Little gave birth to a mouse, who appears to have been born with the personality, or at least the habits, of a middle-aged man. Neither my son nor I really liked it at first, but we got increasingly involved. And the book kind of ends right in the middle. We're thinking about writing our own chapters about Stuart's adventures as (spoiler alert) he heads north looking for Margalo.