Thursday, August 19, 2021

The River Bank by Kij Johnson

Books for children are often set in deliberately altered versions of the world: simplified or rationalized, turned into something more like a utopia or dystopia, or one of those weird things where eight-year-olds seem to all live alone in their own houses and no one has an actual job.

Books from the past are set in worlds that don't exist anymore: worlds we might recognize or not, worlds we might want to live in or not, worlds that never were or worlds that were supposed to come into being later.

And then we have new books, maybe for children, based on old books for children...I don't know if I could describe all of the ways a world like that is different. So Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows in 1908, about very English-country-people animals living along a river, and it was quirky in both writing-for-children ways and Edwardian ways, but deeply lovable and loved. Some of the writing-for-children and Edwardian things hit differently a hundred years later, which was likely part of the reason Kij Johnson decided to write a sequel, and actually include things like, I don't know, actual female characters.

That's The River Bank. A 2017 novel probably mostly for adults who read The Wind in the Willows as children, maybe particularly for women who wondered what a woman Mole or Badger or Water Rat (or even, heaven forbid! Toad) would be like. It's mostly slow and winding, like its model the Grahame novel or like its model the river itself. I haven't read Wind in ages, but this feels like the same sort of thing: Johnson isn't trying to subvert or rewrite the original, but to extend it and give it new life. (The other half of life, perhaps.)

So it begins not long after Wind. Toad is still chastened from his recent exploits, but of course he will surge back to heights of Toad-ness eventually. Two new residents of the River Bank have arrived, and taken up residence in Sunflower Cottage: Beryl, a Mole, and Rabbit. (Johnson is Grahame-esque enough to avoid using actual names unless she absolutely has to: the Rabbit does have a name, which we learn, and one faintly supposes the male characters do have personal names as well, but they never are necessary, so they never appear.) The Rabbit is flighty, as one expects a Rabbit - particularly a female Rabbit, at least one character sniffs -- to be.

This is largely still Grahame's world: the technology is that of a century ago. Motor-cars are new and exciting, and motor-cycles will be even more so (particularly to certain susceptible individuals). The social world is equally so: more formal and defined.

Mole - the original Mole - does not want to talk to or spend any time with Beryl. They know each other in some way, undefined for a long time, and she is friendly to everyone but he is just barely this side of rude with her. That's one strand of what will turn into the plot.

Another is Toad, of course. He will get a new enthusiasm, and will go much too far with it.

There's also a tertiary thread about creation and art: Beryl is a novelist, and the Water Rat writes poetry. The god Pan makes a return appearance in River Bank, reprising his role in Wind.

Like Wind, River Bank is made up of mostly independent chapters, each of which is about a particular day or series of events. There is a similar climax to the motor-car/prison/recapture of Toad Hall in Wind, which happens in a very different way with a somewhat different cast in a different place.

This is a deliberately small book, much like Wind. It aims to replicate the feeling and rhythms of living beside a placid river in a deep English summer, and does so well. It's a fine sequel that stands well besides its original. 

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