Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a book which has stayed with me since my childhood. It’s not a favorite—I never read it until I was an adult. But as child who spent her after-school hours at the local library, I became more than a little familiar with the cover, which always seemed to be glaring down at me from the paperback rack. Occasionally it would disappear for a few weeks, only to reappear and resume its vigil. Sometimes unnerved—I can admit this—I’d shift the rack so that the more benevolent Beezus could watch over me instead. Voracious reader that I was, I was never able to get past that cover with the two uncertain figures against a blood red sky, keeping a wary eye on the wolves prowling beneath them.
Then I grew up and became a children’s librarian and thought, “I really should read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.” I had a new appreciation for the wonderfully alliterative title and the book’s status as a classic. I even felt a little nostalgia towards it, associating it with so many happy afternoons spent reading other books. Getting beyond the picture on front, and turning the book over, the back cover promised me dastardly deeds, plucky heroines, and—of course—wolves
The opening paragraph wastes no time setting the scene:
“It was dusk—winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.”
Forbidding an introduction though that is, Willoughby Chase is actually a warm and inviting estate, standing as a symbol of civility and light in a dark, vicious world. The story revolves around Bonnie Green and her orphaned cousin Sylvia. Bonnie is the beloved child of Sir Willoughby and Lady Green. They are due to set off on a world-wide voyage to find a more temperate climate for the sickly Lady Green. While they are away, Bonnie and Sylvia are to be cared for by Miss Slighcarp, who is Bonnie’s new governess, as well as Sir Willoughby’s fourth cousin. If her name wasn’t enough of a hint as to her true nature, the splashing away of her wig by the impetuous Bonnie—revealing her to be quite bald beneath her fancy hair– makes it clear that she is not as she presents herself to be. And indeed, as soon as the lord and lady of the house are gone, Miss Slighcarp sets about dismissing the servants, dressing herself in Lady Green’s beautiful clothes, burning and forging documents, and abusing the children. She is not alone in her knavery. An accomplice, Mr. Grimshaw, has travelled down from London to help with the hostile takeover. When Bonnie and Sylvia try to get news to a sympathetic neighbor that all is not well, they are packed off to an orphanage run by the third member of this terrible triumvirate, Mrs. Brisket. The orphanage is no more than a work house and a prison, and after months of drudgery and abuse, the two girls make a daring escape with the help of Bonnie’s friend Simon, who raises geese in a cave on the boundaries of her father’s land. They head for the London home of Sir Willoughby’s sister, Sylvia’s own beloved Aunt Jane, where they hope to enlist help in regaining control of Willoughby Chase and discovering the truth about Sir Willoughby and Lady Green, now feared lost at sea. Lemony Snicket himself could not contrive a situation more unfortunate.
As an adult reader of this book, I appreciate the cultural influences on the story at a level which would have escaped me as a child. The book is part of a series called The Wolf Chronicles, in which Aiken has created an alternate historical reality, although that is not particularly evident in this book. It bears a strong resemblance to Victorian England, although London is the only recognizable place named. The wild wolves harken back to the underlying menace of Grimm fairy tales; the description of the forbidding countryside reads like Bronte (take your pick which one;) the industrial city of Blastburn is straight out of Dickens; the triumph of the demoted rich girl over a diabolical headmistress will be familiar to any reader of Burnett’s A Little Princess. The text is spectacular. Aiken manages to incorporate such linguistic gems as “goffering”, “chatelaine”, “oubliette”, lachrymose”, and my all-time favorite–which doesn’t get nearly enough use anymore–“vexatious.” History, literature and language intersect at Willoughby Chase to great effect.
Bonnie and Sylvia are heroines who live up to the demands of their incredible journey. Bonnie is bold, Sylvia demure. They are loyal, resourceful, and stoutly optimistic. Although Bonnie has had all the advantage of her privileged upbringing, Sylvia brings the patience and temperament of a child raised to be dutiful. Together they are a team as determined as they are lucky.
For all the menace of the front cover, the fiercest wolves at Willoughby Chase are the usurping grown-ups. Actual wolves are there, terrifying the fringes of the land, drawing close at night, then drifting back come the dawn. But despite the top billing they get in the book’s title, the wolves themselves are the least of the girls’ worries (although the scene where a pack of wolves attacks a stationary train is a grisly dramatic highlight.) As is so often the case, human villainy poses the greatest danger to innocence. Bonnie and Sylvia’s adventures seem absolutely incredible; their scrapes, and Miss Slighcarp’s contrivances, sometimes defy belief. But the danger of security snatched away, and the assurance that purity of heart will triumph, rings true throughout the book. True enough to assure any child willing to open the cover.
Kara Dean is a Youth Services Librarian and reviewer who lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter. She has served as a judge for the Cybils and the Massachusetts Book Awards, and spent most of the summer reading Jane Austen adaptations in preparation for her first public speaking engagement. She blogs at http://notjustforkids.blogspot.com/ and http://fromja2ya.wordpress.com/. You can find her on twitter @tardisgrl