I briefly posted about this book on our FB page a few days ago (you are FB friends with us, yes? Apart from blog announcements there are also frequent postings of free mp3 downloads and free kindle books); it’s free for kindle here, or you can read it the traditional bound book way. I bought a copy of it at a used bookshop years ago and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. One of 2013′s themes is going to be Reading Books Off My Own Shelves* and this one seemed like a good place to start.
In many ways, this book reminded me of The Wouldbegoods by E. Nesbit ~ children off doing their own mischievous things in a (mostly) quieter, gentler world. Grahame’s children are orphans being raised by a host of aunts and uncles (“The Olympians,” our narrator, one of the children, calls them). The children had very little supervision and the whole tone of the book is set in the opening sentence ~ “Looking back to those days of old, ere the gate shut to behind me, I can see now that to children with a proper equipment of parents these things would have worn a different aspect. But to those whose nearest were aunts and uncles, a special attitude of mind may be allowed.”
And with this special attitude in mind, we watch the children romp through the pages… chasing the neighbor’s animals, pretending to be Jason and the argonauts, temporarily borrowing (without getting permission) a rowboat to aid in their playacting, eavesdropping, unintentionally scaring off tutors, and a host other small adventures that mean so much to little children. A few things in particular struck me about these adventures; one of them being how very much time the children spent relishing time outdoors, and how much I want that for my own children. This book reverberates with the joy of the outdoor world.
The other thing that caught my attention was how natural and safe it was to run into strangers and interact with them for a bit. Yes, this is probably something that would have been somewhat different “with the proper equipment of parents,” but books from this time period (this was published in 1895) make it quite clear that it wasn’t an unusual thing for a child to wander somewhere new-to-them on their own and to feel comfortable visiting with strangers. I am thinking a good part of the reason for this was that even if the children didn’t know everyone in their surroundings, the adults did; the rural world was one of tight-knit farming communities. I imagine that children in London at this time period had considerably less freedom of movement, for instance. It’s an interesting historical topic and one I’d love to see explored further in a research book (perhaps that has been done already? I’ll have to look!).
I would recommend this book for older readers or as a family read aloud. Some of the humor will be a bit awkward for a younger child or just go straight over their heads. Consider this passage, for instance; the brothers of the sibling group are having a conversation over a bottle of ginger beer. Harold is the youngest.
~ “‘Martha says,’ explained Harold…, ‘that if you swallow a bit of cork, it swells, and it swells, and it swells inside you, till you——’
‘O bosh!’ said Edward, draining the glass with a fine pretence of indifference to consequences, but all the same (as I noticed) dodging the floating cork-fragments with skill and judgment.
‘O, it’s all very well to say bosh,’ replied Harold nettled: ‘but every one knows it’s true but you. Why, when Uncle Thomas was here last, and they got up a bottle of wine for him, he took just one tiny sip out of his glass, and then he said, “Poo, my goodness, that’s corked!” And he wouldn’t touch it. And they had to get a fresh bottle up. The funny part was, though, I looked in his glass afterwards, when it was brought out into the passage, and there wasn’t any cork in it at all! So I drank it all off, and it was very good!’
‘You’d better be careful, young man!’ said his elder brother, regarding him severely: ‘D’you remember that night when the Mummers were here, and they had mulled port, and you went round and emptied all the glasses after they had gone away?’
‘Ow! I did feel funny that night,’ chuckled Harold. ‘Thought the house was comin’ down, it jumped about so: and Martha had to carry me up to bed, ‘cos the stairs was goin’ all waggity!’
We gazed searchingly at our graceless junior; but it was clear that he viewed the matter in the light of a phenomenon rather than of a delinquency.”
This made me laugh so hard I was nearly crying, but I know that at eight, my sanctimonious self would have been half-confused and half-indignant.
Not everything is humour, though; the book definitely ends on a bittersweet note when the eldest brother is sent to school. Grahame makes it quite clear it’s the End of an Era, even though the poor children don’t know the full extent of it yet. Although I’d laughed and smiled through most of the book, the very end gave me a lump in my throat.
If your reading time is frequently interrupted, this book is an excellent one to choose.
* (so I will use the library still for some books, but I want to make a conscious effort to get through some of the books on my shelves this year. Can’t wait to see what the progress has been like by year’s end!)