An excellent little book.
The book starts out with the Mole getting a feeling that he has to get out of his hole and get outside (a metaphorical birthing). He wanders around and meets up with Water Rat. The two of them go on a boating adventure on the River.
This is the chapter with the ever so famous passage regarding "messing about in boats."
The Rat sculled smartly across and made fast. Then he held up his forepaw as the Mole stepped gingerly down. "Lean on that!" he said. "Now then, step lively!" and the Mole to his surprise and rapture found himself actually seated in the stern of a real boat.
"This has been a wonderful day!" said he, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. "Do you know, I've never been in a boat before in all my life."
"What?" cried the Rat, open-mouthed: "Never been in a—you never— well I—what have you been doing, then?"
"Is it so nice as all that?" asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.
"Nice? It's the ONLY thing," said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. "Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing," he went on dreamily: "messing— about—in—boats; messing——"
"Look ahead, Rat!" cried the Mole suddenly.
It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.
"—about in boats—or WITH boats," the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. "In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you've done it there's always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you'd much better not. Look here! If you've really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?"
After that they meet with Toad, who is an arrogant, reckless gentleman bachelor who lives in a magnificent mansion on the hill. He is the guy who rushes headlong into the abyss, first getting deeply into all things boats. But when the Rat and Mole meet up with him he is going on a trip in a camper towed by a horse.
Rat resists going on the trip, preferring to stay home and hang out on the River. But Mole seems excited and Rat doesn't like to disappoint anyone, so down the road the three of them go.
But then they get run off the road by a motor car and Toad gets all wild-eyed and obsessed with cars and going as fast as he possibly can. This leads to a whole mess of other adventures, including Toad's arrest and trial for stealing a car.
The stories have a loose connection with each other, and about half way through the book I was wondering if they were just single-standing narrative sketches. But slowly the thread comes together with a satisfying end.
Some of the individual chapters are quite deep. In one of them a Traveling Rat bumps into Water Rat and they get into a conversation about whether it's better to stay home or go on many travels. In another Otter's son is missing and Rat and Mole go looking for him and meet Friend and Helper himself.
All of the writing is beautiful. Really vivid descriptions, and each word seems to be chosen specifically for the flavor it gives, and how it affects the taste of the entire stew. I found myself not wanting the stories to end just so I could keep reading the delicious words. It was that good.
The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces—meadows wide-spread, and quiet gardens, and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed, all washed clean of mystery and terror, all radiant again as by day, but with a difference that was tremendous. Their old haunts greeted them again in other raiment, as if they had slipped away and put on this pure new apparel and come quietly back, smiling as they shyly waited to see if they would be recognised again under it.
Fastening their boat to a willow, the friends landed in this silent, silver kingdom, and patiently explored the hedges, the hollow trees, the runnels and their little culverts, the ditches and dry water-ways. Embarking again and crossing over, they worked their way up the stream in this manner, while the moon, serene and detached in a cloudless sky, did what she could, though so far off, to help them in their quest; till her hour came and she sank earthwards reluctantly, and left them, and mystery once more held field and river.
Then a change began slowly to declare itself. The horizon became clearer, field and tree came more into sight, and somehow with a different look; the mystery began to drop away from them. A bird piped suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling. Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving while he scanned the banks with care, looked at him with curiosity.
'It's gone!' sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. 'So beautiful and strange and new. Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever. No! There it is again!' he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.
It's definitely a story I will read at bedtime to the nephews and nieces.
You can read an online copy here.