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I have written a children’s novel titled In the Wake of the Willows.  It is a Wind in the Willows pastiche complete at 64,000 words.

Summary: When a spooky nocturnal creature starts terrorizing the riverfront, Mr. Rat’s clever daughter sets to work solving the mystery and unmasking the culprit, but that is only the beginning of the intrigue and adventure one summer on a New England coastal estuary in the 1920’s.

Synopsis: My book revolves around the children of the original characters, especially Mr. Rat’s daughter and Mr. Toad’s son.  Mr. Rat’s daughter is a studious, junior detective obsessed with bird watching and natural history but has to deal with Mr. Toad’s son who is a Tom Sawyer-like boy who is forever getting into trouble. Highlights of this story include an ominous Native American prophesy, a suspected sea monster, a scavenger hunt with rhyming clues, a ruthless croquet tournament, sailing to a secret island, some historical fiction, an unusual square dance under the stars, persnickety weasels, a campfire on the beach at night watching shooting stars, a devious fox, the extinction of a bird species, the most boastful & conceited song ever written by a toad, a mysterious clue etched on a scrap of birch bark, a devastating hurricane, a heroic rescue, and lots of mischievous humor.

All of the bird behavior and natural history in the book is accurate and should inspire young readers to learn more.   All of the locations in the book, such as Martha’s Vineyard, the Hen & Chickens, and Cuttyhunk, are real places, although some go under pseudonyms.  The River in the story could represent any of a hundred of tidal estuaries that punctuation the coast from New York to New Brunswick.  Each chapter starts with an epigraph or two from a 19th century American naturalist or poet such as Emily Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Muir, John Burroughs, Stanton Kirkham Davis, Peattie, etc..  I included a single Old World poet, Robert Burns, because his Red Rose song with the seas “gang dry” was so perfect for my story and because Mr. Badger was also a Scottsman.

Below is the first chapter.  I hope you enjoy it!


Chapter 1: A Monster Haunts the Riverfront

“Always, when the surface is calm enough and the light is favorable, the river seems shot through and through with tremblings and premonitions… One secret of success in observing Nature is capacity to take a hint… It is not so much what we see as what the thing seen suggests. “
–John Burroughs, Signs and Seasons, 1886

 

If not for the newly arrived Monster, this season would have started like so many others along The River.

It had been a typical off-season along the riverbank. Through the snows and frosts and winter’s other indignities, nature’s seeds had rested underground, their faint embers of life patiently waiting for that fine spring day when a warm southwest wind off the ocean would fan them to life.  That day came in mid-April this year when Aeolus summoned the sea wind to drive off winter’s icy shackles.  From every branch and patch of ground, green tendrils reached for the sun as the land awoke.

Across the community there was a bustle and a buzz of preparation for what promised to be another delightful summer.  Gardens were weeded, burrows swept out, fences painted, and windows washed.  Nests were built, holes excavated, and dens lined.  The trees had begun to leaf out, and the songbirds had arrived to glean their foliage.  Every morning more and more voices joined the chorus as new arrivals tried to get in a few words to announce the day until it was a joyous dawn cacophony of birdsong.

The nautical set was also busy getting ready.  Rat’s catboat, the Beetle, had been launched and was happily bobbing at her slip, shimmering under a fresh coat of varnish, tugging at her traces, and eager to be off.  Mr. and Mrs. Badger had moved out of their subterranean winter quarters in the Wild Wood to their 41-foot yawl, The Concordia, which was tied up at The Club’s long wharf.  The farmers had just planted their summer corn, and their peas were already setting flowers.  Mrs. Badger’s roses had been pruned and were putting out new shoots.  Everything pointed to another fine season along The River, or so it seemed.

But there was a problem; the first inkling of the looming crisis was already upon them.  The River was in a strange mood this year; something was just not right.  A new creature had moved in along the waterfront and begun a terrifying caterwauling and thwacking at night.  The local folk were quite alarmed; The River is a tranquil place and nothing like this had been heard before.  Sounds carry a long way on the water, and everyone had an opinion about the source.  It was not Beaver and his chainsaw; the locals knew that unpleasant sound all too well. This terrible shrieking appeared to come from a distressed, or at least highly animated, creature.

Mr. Rat was convinced it was a Loon.  He explained, to anyone who would listen, that the Cree believed the Loon’s call was the lament of an Indian brave denied access to heaven.  Many of the other children in the riverfront community favored this theory, especially the part about the cry of a Cree warrior, but Mr. Rat’s daughter, Rickie, did not.  Rickie was the local authority on birds and thought the terrible sounds were something far more sinister.

Investigating the shore one morning, Rickie was alarmed to find clumps of marsh grass that looked like they had been torn from the mud flats and chewed up.  Some titanic struggle was unfolding at night on The River.  Was it tooth and claw and flying fur?  Maybe, but Rickie had her doubts.

Some said the howling was a hobo bobcat coming to visit, others said it was the barn owls that had recently been discovered in a silo at the Tripp farm. There were even some tall “tails” about roosters, but these were quickly dismissed.  The superstitious among the river folk started to tell spooky stories about a Banshee they saw at night that had come to foretell a death in the community.

No one was quite sure what the source of the noise was, but the consensus seemed to be that an Eastern Mountain Lion, also known as a Catamount, had moved in; nothing else could wail so dreadfully. Several sources claimed to have even seen the big cat quietly padding along the riverbank, its long, thick tail twitching and swishing.   One witness drew a sketch of it, which was put on warning posters around town.  After dinner activities were canceled, and the riverfront community started locking their doors at night, something that they had never done before.  Pit traps were dug for the Catamount, but all they caught was a groggy Mr. Toad wobbling back from The Club late one night, much to the annoyance of a skunk that was also in the trap.

A dangerous beast was on the loose, and the community was on edge.  Parents were now nervously escorting their children to and from school. The constable hired extra deputies to help guard the community and reassure its inhabitants.  Why the Catamount had moved in, and what it was dining on, was a source of much speculation and worry.

Another problem that vexed the placid waters of The River was the ocean swells.  Old Neptune, it would seem, was sending feelers far up River, jiggling the wine glasses at Boathouse row and rocking the yachts at their moorings.  Even Badger, snug in the cabin of his splendid yawl, the Concordia, noticed the tea sloshing in his cup.  One night The River ran over its banks, and the salt burned Mrs. Badger’s riverside rose garden[1]. It was assumed that the winter storms had rearranged the bottom in such a way that the ocean could now get into their quiet anchorage, but no one could say for sure.

But there were other troubles along The River, as well.  Lately the locals along the waterfront were puzzled by the mysterious channels that began appearing in the salt marshes and sandbars along the bends and oxbows of The River.  Some thought that this was related to the ocean swells that were running up The River.  Most assumed that the meandering River had changed its mind about the best route to the sea, as it is wont to do, and was feeling out a new passage.  Some boaters were grateful for the shortcuts, but the inquisitive Rickie was puzzled. Why were these channels in a neat line?  It was not like The River to come straight to the point; it preferred to tell its tale in a meandering, roundabout sort of way.  Rickie tried to dismiss her ponderings on this subject, but once an idea fetched up in her mind, she could never shake it until she had seen it through to resolution.

Everyone could sense that there was something off-kilter along The River, but few could articulate their doubts.  The Ospreys were unusually irritable this spring, scolding and screeching and shooing all visitors away and altogether being very unsociable.  The clamming was slow and few scallops were seen castanet-ing around the shallows.  Even the flounder and striped bass seemed hesitant to enter their usual haunts on the sand bars and reefs of The River.   The eider ducks and cormorants were jittery and scattered when approached.

There is a balance and harmony to The River as it revolves through the seasons.  When The River is out of balance, the residents can feel it, and this year there was a palpable sense of unease and apprehension about the approaching summer.

The unthinkable was starting to happen along The River; some residents started to whisper that their companion and provider, the dependable River, reliable friend to countless generations, was no longer a safe anchorage.

Although there was a great deal of concern about the coming season, no one could have anticipated the scope of the coming crisis, nor could anyone imagine that the fate of the riverfront and even the lives of some of its inhabitants would depend on the actions of the most irresponsible member of the community.  In the months to follow, the smallest detail such as the twist of a knot, a voice in the wind, the turn of the tide, or the wing of a curlew, would have the most profound consequences and the greatest responsibility would be borne by the least qualified.  For this was but the first inkling of the drama to come…

[1] This is when the situation got serious, since wise riverfolk knew that the one person not to aggravate was Mrs. Badger.

 

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About

For about 20 years I wrote a nature / science column in various newspapers in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including The Providence Journal.  Recently I recorded an audio version of one of my nature essays (about fireflies) for the Rhode Island National Public Radio station (http://ripr.org/post/i-believe-rhode-island-hayfields-and-fireflies).

I have also written some science articles on birding and fisheres. I have been published in a technical birding (ornithological) journal (The Wilson Bulletin).  In addition I write an occasional wine blog for the Standard Times of New Bedford, MA.  I graduated from Brown University in 1983 and am related to James Thurber, but distantly.

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Contact

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