Two best friends meet up for the first time beside a river in the springtime. A conceited song is suppressed, a barge is overturned, and numerous motor cars are smashed to smithereens. All in a day’s work for Water Rat and Mole, Mr. Badger, the Otter… and the (in)famous Mr. Toad. The story begins when the Mole throws caution to the winds, abandons the task of spring-cleaning his burrow, and sets out into the wide world. This impetuous act from an otherwise sensible animal takes us into the middle of the waterfront society of hedgehogs, mice, and ducks (none of whom are very interested in spring-cleaning). Cementing their newfound friendship with a picnic and a misshap involving a small boat, Mole and Water Rat set out to explore their world, compose poetry, and get their friends out of some tight spots.
All the loveliness of the English countryside in the spring and summer is balanced by the coziness of wintertime in Water Rat’s hole in the river bank, complete with a library and fireplace. Each animal in this little community has his own story line and preoccupations, and their personalities unfold in slyly humorous counterpoint to Mr. Toad’s grandiose schemes and continual accidents, and Mr. Badger’s blunt manners and introspective nature. Although the animals and dialogue are sometimes a little goofier than I’d like (and that’s a Wind in the Willows purist talking) the illustrations are perfect, particularly Plessix’s renderings of the woods, river, fields, and living rooms where the action unfolds. Plessix also manages to incorporate a good deal of the book’s original dialogue into his frames, and depicts Kenneth Grahame’s poetic and spiritual passages beautifully in his illustrations. This is a story of intrigue, hair-raising schemes, and happy companions, taking place on a small scale that feels both very close to home, and like a long look into another world.