Wild Wood by Jan Needle and Willie Rushton

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Wild Wood by Jan Needle and Willie Rushton

Buy Wild Wood by Jan Needle and Willie Rushton at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Tanja Jennings
Reviewed by Tanja Jennings
Summary: This is a wickedly witty masterpiece of satire. Ably assisted by the accomplished political caricaturist Rushton, Needle paints a picture of the socio-economic and political realities of the destitute Wild Wooders which drive them inexorably towards an uprising against the privileged River Bankers. But will their social manifesto become a reality as greed versus need?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: May 2014
Publisher: Golden Duck
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781899262212

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Bank clerk Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 classic Wind in the Willows, populated with lovable anthropomorphic characters, started life as a bed time story for his son Alistair. He fused these adventurous tales with later descriptive epistles for a holidaying Alistair to create a tale which was, as Grahame described in a letter to Teddy Roosevelt, an expression of the very simplest joys of life as lived by the simplest beings. Indeed the four iconic protagonists - the outrageous, irrepressible toad, the loyal and humble mole, the brave and paternalistic badger and the resourceful and determined rat have a fond place in many childhood memories but are they as valiant as they seem? What if they were suddenly recast as the villains of the piece?

Jan Needle and Willie Rushton’s cleverly observed reinterpretation, Wild Wood, is an astonishing and satirical volte face where the River Bankers are depicted as privileged landowners who lord it over the poverty stricken inhabitants of the wild wood. The antagonists of Wind in the Willows - the stoats, weasels and ferrets originally maligned as wicked, bloodthirsty skirmishers undergo a metamorphosis into a gallant band of volunteers formed to bring about the downfall of the rich, uncaring few. Previously marginalised and relegated to the outskirts of flat character land their voice is finally heard as their tale is chronicled by Needle’s fictional creation - the mad old gentleman Sir Cedric Willoughby, journalist and historian. His path has crossed that of Baxter, a hard working ferret mechanic who has regaled him with his version of events.

From the start the narrative is joyous, ebullient and comical, enhanced by Rushton’s exquisitely crafted illustrations beautifully observing facial expressions and individual character nuances. His drawing of Toad complete with deer stalker hat, driver’s goggles, leather gauntleted paw and arrogant stance is inspired. Although the front cover features the four animals we know so well the inside is a different story. Baxter the ferret distinguishes their species from stoats and weasels joking a weasel’s easily distinguished, ferret’s stoatily different. They are fun loving creatures, enjoying lively music and merry get togethers on ‘Brew Day’ when Baxter’s mother Daisy concocts a bitter beer enough to grow hairs on a frog. But winter is cruel, times are hard, jobs are scarce and Toad is feckless, profligate and recklessly running roughshod over the needs of others. These circumstances lead the animals to a drastic decision, spurred on by Boddington, an impassioned stoat revolutionary.

One cannot fail to notice a parallel with Animal Farm, particularly evident in the characters of the worker Baxter, the flamboyant Chief Weasel OB and the idealist Boddington. It is particularly prevalent when Toad Hall becomes Brotherhood Hall and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As Wild Wood unfolds lovers of the original will not be disappointed. Plot points from Grahame are expertly interwoven into Needle’s narrative but cleverly retold from the perspective of the put upon Wild Wooders. Keenly observed episodes include Toad’s car capers, the hedgehog carollers, the lure of the sea-faring rat to Ratty, Badger’s house arrest of Toad, Portly the Otter’s disappearance and Toad’s prison escape. It is ingenious the way the plot twists and turns to dovetail perfectly with Grahame’s classic. The Wild Wooders are well rounded portraits. Baxter is a likeable protagonist whose love of cars plays a major role, his mother Daisy and sister Dolly are multi-faceted and strong female characters, Boddington the stoat is dour and earnest and OB is shrewd, party loving and charismatic.

Willie Rushton, renowned for his work as a political cartoonist with Private Eye, is the perfect choice as illustrator, his art from the 1981 Andre Deutsch publication reborn for a new readership in this 2014 tribute by Golden Duck. Through his black and white drawings the ferrets, stoats and weasels are humanised and brought into the foreground, a dramatic departure from the heavily shaded 1931 line drawings of E.H Shepherd where they are vague impersonal background creatures that are marginalised and indistinguishable as different species.

In spite of its Orwellian undercurrent, Wild Wood has a sense of joie de vivre throughout, evident even in its slyly humorous appendices detailing a brewing process and notes on a banquet featuring toad in the hole as a prize dish. It offers much scope for debate on social inequality and will be enjoyed by adults who enjoy a witty take on a classic and children re-exploring Grahame’s world and learning about the power of a different perspective. The only criticism is a slight tendency by the author to use the ‘dear reader’ device and hint at what is to come which spoils the surprise somewhat.

If you would like to take a trip into the world of re-imagined classics why not start with Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a poignant retelling of Jane Eyre from the viewpoint of the marginalised character of the madwoman in the attic who becomes flesh and blood or the joyously tongue-in-cheek Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith which delights in action packed undead mayhem. If you prefer something gentler find Sara Crewe's forgotten friends in the select seminary in Wishing For Tomorrow by Hilary McKay or join Pooh bear in Return to the Hundred Acre Wood by David Benedictus. Before reading Wild Wood why not revisit The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. If sharp satire is more your style experience the craziness of war in Catch 22 by Joseph Heller or even marvel at something completely different with The Lunar Chronicles: Cinder by Marissa Meyer, a fantastic retelling of Cinderella in a futuristic plague ridden world. It ain't no fairytale and like "Wild Wood" has observations to make on social inequality.

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Buy Wild Wood by Jan Needle and Willie Rushton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Wild Wood by Jan Needle and Willie Rushton at Amazon.com.


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