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Return to the Willows : Sequel to Grahame's children's classic fails to carry on his vision : THE WILLOWS IN WINTER, By William Horwood . Illustrated by Patrick Benson (St. Martin's Press / A Thomas Dunne Book: $18.95; 295 pp.)

November 13, 1994|Michael Cart | Formerly Director of the Beverly Hills Public Library, Michael Cart is now a full-time writer and observer of the children's book world. His first two books will be published in 1995

Considering the recent commercial success of posthumous sequels to celebrated novels ("Scarlett," Alexandra Ripley's 1991 postscript to "Gone With the Wind," sold an astonishing 2.3 million copies), it was only a matter of time before publishers began searching the world of children's literature for likely candidates. Since nothing is sacred in the corporate land of bottom-line, could there be a better place to start than Kenneth Grahame's "Wind in the Willows," arguably the greatest children's book of them all and a perennial bestseller to boot?

So, step aside, Scarlett, and make way for Mr. Toad, Water Rat, Mole and Badger who have returned in the pages of William Horwood's "The Willows in Winter." When it was first published in Great Britain last year, the book enjoyed brisk sales, spending 12 weeks on the London Times bestseller list. With an impressive first printing of 100,000 copies by its American publisher, the book is obviously expected to do equally well here in the States.

If a sequel to this enduring classic had to be written (though Grahame himself refused to do so, explaining that "sequels are often traps which the wise author does well to avoid"), William Horwood is not a bad choice to do it. After all, this former journalist is the author of the popular Duncton Wood series, six massive fantasies chronicling the imagined lives and civilization of a race of sentient moles living in a wood near Oxford. His established sympathy with the small animals of the natural world and his obvious love for the Willows characters stand him in good stead here. As a sequel to Grahame's enduring childhood classic, however, his book is ultimately a failure--but an interesting failure, because its shortcomings point up Grahame's successes.

"The Wind in the Willows," you will remember, is essentially two stories: The first finds an exasperated Mole fleeing from the rigors of spring housecleaning and discovering the world of the river bank and a new friendship with one of its residents, the Water Rat. The second follows the outrageous misadventures of the wealthy Toad, master of Toad Hall but hapless slave to his exuberant enthusiasms, particularly for shiny motor cars that go "poop-poop."

When Mole, Rat, and the stern Badger restrain Toad for his own good, he escapes, steals a motor car, is apprehended and locked up in "the remotest dungeon of the stoutest castle in Merry England." He escapes and at length returns to Toad Hall, a chastened, repentant and "indeed, an altered Toad."

Sure he was! Not even Grahame believed that one. "Of course Toad was never really reformed," he admitted later, "he was by nature incapable of it. But the subject is a painful one to pursue."

Not for Horwood, however, who relishes the premise that, some years later, the recidivist Toad has finally backslid, his mania for motor cars now replaced by an all-consuming passion for flying machines.

Once Toad is aloft, the story takes off, just as his earlier misadventures had propelled Grahame's plot.

If Toad has captured Horwood's imagination, it is Mole who has won his heart. Indeed, Horwood claims that it was his acquisition of one of E. H. Shepard's brilliant illustrations of Mole in the Wild Wood that was the inspiration for this sequel.

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