I was very dubious. I’m such a fan of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows with Ratty, Mole, and Toad and their adventures. The book has always seemed a sort of old boy’s adventure, “old boy” in the sense of those of a particular class and who went to British boarding schools and messed around in the countryside just as those delightful characters do on the riverside. So when I heard that Jacqueline Kelly was working on a sequel my immediate reaction was why? Those original characters are perfectly fine as they mess with their boats, so don’t mess with their book, I thought. Leave ‘em alone.
And so I open Kelly’s Return to the Willows, intending to just take a quick look, but I kept reading intrigued and before long I’d read the whole thing. And guess what, reader? I liked it.
First of all Kelly clearly knows and loves the original and manages, as few have before her, to pay homage while creating something new at the same time. She perfectly captures the nature of the three original heroes: Ratty, Mole, and Toad and even manages to bring out gruff old Badger a bit. And then she successfully adds in two new characters: Toad’s nephew Humphrey and a female baker rat, Matilda. Both work within the well-recreated world of Grahame’s as well as open it up for today’s young readers. I think, in fact, their additions are very sly and smart. Humphrey offers someone for young readers to latch on to as they might not our original three heroes. And Matilda — I admit I was very skeptical and a bit hostile to her at first as the original book feels so much about a bunch of school boys, but I was won over completely. She makes such good sense within that world, is lightly introduced, and then plays an important part near the end. Very nicely done indeed.
Kelly delightfully maintains that particular world of comfort, pleasant days, and slight adventure. It has been a while since I read the original, but it felt like Kelly was somewhat channelling its structure. There are smaller events to start, then a removal for Toad and another trip back (even involving a revisit to his former place of encarceration), a jolly battle yet again with those weasels and stoats, and finally a satisfyingly hearty ending.
One of the reason it works so well is that Kelly has done a very fine job with the language, somehow lightly maintaining Grahame’s style in a way that will be accessible for readers today. (One way is through her footnotes — I do wonder though if kids will bother to read them. Though I guess they did with Snicket and those are just the sort of readers who will gravitate to this book.) And, I should say, it is funny in the same way the original is. Especially, just as in the original, Toad. Kelly gets his voice spot on.
Ultimately it is Kelly’s clear love and appreciation of Grahame’s text that makes this shine. Lovely little touches such as the Chief Weasel and Under-Stoat seeing that Toad’s nephew Humphrey gets a lavish picnic lunch even as they are about to kidnap him (and seeing he continues to be well-fed throughout his ordeal). Toad’s stint at Cambridge, his unfortunate taste for vehicles of every sort, and so forth.
Three cheers for Ms. Kelly for doing so well by Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger, and that whole riverbank world.