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Spotlight: More Kid Stuff

From the Wild Wood to Deadmen's Valley —
Books for Web-Footed Children

By Farwell Forrest
farwell@paddling.net

September 9, 2003

Some kids — I was one — take to paddling like … well … ducks take to water. Not that there was much water to take to in the city where I grew up. True, the Hudson River lapped greasily at the sodden pilings of the decaying port, but the waterfront was never a welcoming place. It wasn't just the bloated bodies of unlucky dogs swirling lazily in the tidal eddies, joined now and again by the last mortal remains of despondent stenographers and derelict winos. It wasn't even the grim-jawed but plodding railway cops, more accustomed to beating up drunken tramps than chasing light-footed street urchins over chain-link fences and under freight cars. No, the thing that froze my blood was the river itself. One look at the quarter-mile-wide expanse of muscular green water was enough to make even the boldest kid retreat to the familiar world of splintered stoops, crumbling sidewalks, and garbage-strewn back-alleys.

That's exactly what I did, too. But though I turned my back on the river, I still felt the tug of the rushing water. So I lived for summer, when afternoon thundershowers sent torrents of rain sluicing down the city's streets, choking storm drains with debris and flooding low-lying intersections. Then I launched my home-built canoe — living next to the city dump meant I was never short of construction materials — on brief but exciting voyages of exploration through once familiar streetscapes, miraculously transformed by floodwater (and imagination) into Venetian canals and Canadian mountain rivers.

All too often, however, the deluge would stop just as quickly as it had begun, stranding me and my awkward craft far from the tenement that I called home. And then, much sooner than seemed possible, summer itself would come to an end, beaching me high and dry in some airless cell of a schoolroom, doomed to watch the faded leaves of the playground's only surviving elm tree fall to the ground one by one, while I waited impatiently for the first snow of winter to transform the urban landscape once again.

 

Times change. The city waterfront is a much more inviting place today than when I was dodging beefy Pinkerton guards, and fewer kids have to wait until a thunderstorm floods their street in order to go paddling. But summer still has much too short a run. Once the back-to-school sales have come and gone, and fall weekends have faded into memory, what's a web-footed kid to do?

Read. That's one answer, anyway. In the last Spotlight, I looked at primers for paddling parents. This time out, I'm going to see what's available for kids. Not primers, though. Any kid who wants to learn to paddle should have the guidance of a more experienced paddler: a parent, perhaps, or a professional instructor, or maybe even another kid, older and more expert than he is himself.

What, then, am I going to write about? Stories. Tales that nourish the imagination, awaken the memory, and whet the appetite. Not just any stories, though. Libraries are full of books for kids, but few of them have stood the test of time as well as The Wind in the Willows. You won't find it on any best-seller list, but Kenneth Grahame's 1908 classic is still in print after almost a century, and that says a lot. If you've read it, you'll know the secret of its enduring appeal. If not, it's time you learned, even if your childhood is only a distant memory. Wind in the Willows is a book that can be read with equal pleasure by both adults and kids.

And what is Wind in the Willows about? It's a fanciful tale of exploration and adventure, set in an idealized English countryside of river and woodland, peopled by a thoroughly engaging cast of animal characters. Don't be put off by this. Wind in the Willows isn't The House on Pooh Corner. Mole, Ratty, Badger, and Toad have nothing in common with the saccharine simulacra that populate most animal tales. No, indeed! Grahame's animals are fully realized individuals: alternately charming and irascible, hard-working and irresponsible, steadfast and flighty. They are, in short, disconcertingly like you and me.

But where's the connection to paddling? Everywhere. Though the story travels far afield as it unfolds, taking the reader from the Wild Wood to Toad Hall to Town and then back again, it never strays far from a river. ("The River," Ratty corrects Mole, with some asperity, reminding him that "What it hasn't got is not worth having, and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing." Would any web-footed kid — or adult — disagree? I doubt it.)

A word of warning: Wind in the Willows was written for children, but that doesn't mean it's an easy read. It's a marvelous read-aloud story, however, whatever the age of your audience. Just be prepared to explain what "Dulce Domum" means, and what the "Return of Ulysses" has to do with the storming of Toad Hall. And while you're at it, try to get hold of one of the many later editions (Charles Scribner's Sons' 1959 Golden Anniversary Edition, for example) that were illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. His painstakingly detailed line drawings are the definitive portraits of life along The River.

 

The world has changed since the reign of Queen Victoria's wayward son, of course. The comfortable certainties of Edwardian England were swallowed up without a trace in the charnel houses of Paschendaele and the Somme, and Kenneth Grahame's green and pleasant land now lives on only in the pages of fiction. But the lure of the water is as strong today as it was in 1908. The Adirondack Kids (Adirondack Kids Press, Camden, New York; 2001) makes this perfectly clear. To be sure, Adirondack Kids is less substantial fare than Wind in the Willows, but perhaps that's not such a bad thing. Written by a father and son team, Justin and Gary VanRiper's slender tale is a coming-of-age story, though the authors mercifully steer clear of the tedious introspection that mars so many examples of this popular genre. Instead, they tell a plain tale simply and well, avoiding both the pleasures and the pitfalls of literary embellishment. Adirondack Kids is a good book to give any newly-independent reader with a taste for the outdoor life.

Is it perfect? No. While some of Glenn Guy's illustrations are superb — I'm thinking particularly of a wonderfully lugubrious black bear, an iconographic librarian, and a suitably haunting portrait of a loon — others are stilted and lifeless. Critical adults might find fault with several of the plot devices, too. No matter. This isn't a book for adults, and despite the illustrator's occasional lapses, his pencil sketches add far more to the story than they take away. The Adirondack Kids evokes the joy of messing about in boats and captures the sweet freedom of childhood summer vacations. That's more than enough.

 

Now, how about something for older kids — for the boy hovering on the cusp of adolescence, say, and dreaming of adventure in far-away places? A book whose pages are peopled with Indians, for instance, and Mounties, too, and a story that involves both gold prospecting and fur trapping. No matter that today's "Indians" are more likely to be shareholders in prosperous Native corporations, or the owners of profitable casinos, than itinerant trappers. No matter that solitary prospecting is dirty, difficult work with scant hope of return. No matter even that trapping is a tedious, grubby business whose success or failure hangs on the whims of fashion designers in distant urban capitals. These discordant notes are pluses, not minuses. What's needed is Romance, not sordid Reality. We want something for the 14-year-old boy in everyman. We want what the Brits used to call "real Boy's Own Paper stuff."

And we won't have to look far to find it. There's no better example than Dangerous River, R.M. Patterson's much-reprinted account of his trips into the Nahanni country in the late 1920s. Most adult paddlers have seen a copy at one time or another, and almost everyone who's read it will agree that it's one helluva tale. It's a true story, into the bargain, though the case-hardened skeptic may find a few things hard to swallow. (Did Patterson — "RMP" to most fans — really put two rounds into a mountain sheep at "nearly five hundred yards," using a Mannlicher carbine with a badly-fitted telescopic sight? Mighty fine shooting, that.) In any case, few readers will care if RMP bent the truth from time to time for the sake of a good yarn. It's a safe bet that Dangerous River is, in Huck Finn's words, "mostly a true book, with some stretchers." It's certainly a marvelously entertaining read. No boy could ask for more.

Can girls play the game, too? Of course they can. They'll soon discover that RMP's Dangerous River was an exclusively male preserve, however. Is this important? Probably not. A good story is a good story, and times have changed.

*

That's it: three great books for web-footed kids. And maybe you, too, will soon be looking for something to lighten the dull, dark months between summer holidays. If so, you could do far worse than to pick up a copy of The Wind in the Willows or Dangerous River — whatever your age. It's a long way from the Wild Wood to Deadmen's Valley, but with the help of Grahame and RMP you can visit both places and still be home in time for supper. Try that in your Prospector!

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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