The longings of the placid, Mary McCallum

Mary McCallum recalls the pleasures of The Wind in the Willows and traces its influence on her first children’s book

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.

 

Children’s literature is on my mind. My first children’s novel, Dappled Annie and the Tigrish, has just made its way out into the world, shaking whitewash from its fur and intent on having a good time. And I’m still thinking about the way stories I loved as a child made their way into the world of Dappled Annie while I was writing it, and set up camp there. I didn’t re-read these books especially, but I know they were in there.

The Wind in the Willows resides in a particularly warm and welcoming place in my head. When I open that door, I see Mole bewitched by the glinting river, Ratty messing about in his boat, Badger in his cosy room with its merry firelight, Toad recklessly being Toad.

There is something compelling and reassuring about this world: the snugness and apparent safety of the animal homes, and the way they live by the edge of the river or in the Wild Wood: contented, independent, tolerant. And how thrillingly this contrasts with the stirrings and threats of the Wild Wood and the creatures within, and the longings of the placid.

Looking at The Wind in the Willows for this article, I realise it’s no accident Dappled Annie has a snug place where Annie goes to be away from her family home and prying eyes. It’s a hedge – or hedgerow, as Mrs Hedge prefers to call it – and it’s a private, buzzing, leafy place with its own society, where Annie plays one hot summer. A place between the known and unknown – there to stop the wide world getting in. Tellingly, in the distance, there’s the Giant Woods. Annie and her brother, Robbie – like Moly – get lost there, and it’s surely the Wild Wood all over again.

Probably the last time I read The Wind in the Willows right through was to my children, one of whom adopted the name Moly, having seen something of his own nature in Kenneth Grahame’s shy but adventurous protagonist. He even sewed a very fetching Mole to carry around in his bag. That was 15 years ago. So there’d certainly be traces in my thinking left over from those readings to my children, as well as the distant traces of my own childhood reading.

Before I started writing Dappled Annie, what I did read was a book called Feeling like a Kid – Childhood and Children’s Literature, by Jerry Griswold. His thesis is elegant and to the point: there are five feelings or sensations prevalent in childhood and therefore in good children’s literature: snugness, scariness, smallness, lightness (freedom and flying both) and aliveness (“the child’s remarkable extension of consciousness” where s/he imagines everything to be alive).

Reading The Wind in the Willows again now – after a long absence – I see the universal animation more clearly. Everything is alive, from the river to the plates glinting in Badger’s home. Opening my copy randomly just now, I am at a passage where Mole is sitting by the river having just escaped spring-cleaning. The river is described as if it is alive, and now the riverbank stirs, too:

As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation; and it was too glittering and small for a glow-worm. Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye; and a small face began gradually to grow up round it, like a frame round a picture.

A brown little face, with whiskers.

 

I had forgotten this! Or had I? For, strangely, Dappled Annie has faces appearing, too, as if from nowhere. This image came strongly to me as an absolutely perfect element in a child’s story, but until now I didn’t know its exact genesis, although I could have guessed. Here we meet them:

The faces in the hedge weren’t like human faces with one shape that stayed that way; they shifted depending on the time of day and what the wind and the sun were doing. And they kept to themselves, looking at people sideways and talking behind a handful of leaves. 

 

With Mole on his own in the Wild Wood, I find that there are more faces:

Twigs crackled under his feet, logs tripped him, funguses on stumps resembled caricatures, and startled him for the moment by their likeness to something familiar and far away; but that was all fun, and exciting. It led him on, and he penetrated to where the light was less, and trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side.

Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water.

Then the faces began.

 

Well, here are Annie and Robbie in the Giant Woods, having fallen off the back of a flying tigerish:

There was a noise. A voice? Annie looked at the trees, their tall leaning bodies. No eyes there, not even the blink of one. Or maybe there was? It was hard to tell in the freckled darkness. Each tree with its dark branches was dark in the interior, too.

Annie shivered. It was cold here.

And there was whispering.

Not in a nice way.

A creak. A plopping sound – something falling.

 

Like the Mole, they’re frightened, but sadly there’s no Badger to shelter them. Clearly The Wind in the Willows was in my thinking somewhere and will continue to be. And I’m glad of it.

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