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Joan Aiken Reading Notes: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

This month, I’ll be going back to look at Joan Aiken’s Willoughby Chase series. Spoilers abound, as usual!wolves-of-willoughby-chase

“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.”

So begins The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the first book in the Willoughby Chase series. I love this opening–there’s a kind of delicious thrill about it and the way it starts off quiet and calm and then turns into something very different. And it serves as a good summary of the world of the books, which looks a great deal like our Georgian/Regency England…except not quite. There are those wolves at the end of the paragraph, wolves that run freely through the countryside.

In fact, Aiken has created a wild alternate history, where Hanoverians in support of Bonnie Prince George are trying to overthrow the Stuart King James III. We see very little of the political aspect in this book, but it becomes a major theme and plot point in the rest of the series. In this first book, what we mostly get is a world that seems so much like our own, but a little bit slantwise.

Oddly enough, my personal history with these books doesn’t start here at all. My grandparents gave me a copy of Nightbirds on Nantucket when I was about 12, and I read that one first (and fell in love) and then went back and read the earlier books. And I do love the first two books! But at the same time my experience is very much filtered through the fact that my experience of these stories began with Dido Twite, who doesn’t appear here at all.

Instead, this is the story of Bonnie and Sylvia, the cousins who get thrown together when Bonnie’s parents invite Sylvia to live with them at Willoughby Chase and then depart for a long ocean-voyage, leaving them in the care of a distant relative none of them have ever seen before.

SHOCKINGLY, this does not go well.

Bonnie and Sylvia are both almost impossibly sweet characters. Bonnie is a little less so, but she’s also a privileged and slightly spoiled child, who is less saintly because she can get away with it. Sylvia seems too good to be true–quite literally. The other main character is a gooseherd name Simon who is an orphan and escaped from a cruel farmer. The Simon of later books is a kind-hearted and relatively fleshed-out character; here he’s more idealized. (We don’t see Bonnie or Sylvia again, as far as I remember.)

As is generally the case in Aiken’s books, the adults here are mostly either evil or naive and helpless. The sole exceptions are James the footman and Pattern, Bonnie’s maid, who try to look after the girls and later save them from the orphanage and Miss Slighcarp. But even in their cases, there’s an odd element of ineffectualness.

And then there are the Slighcarps and Miss Brisket, who represent the other kind of Aiken adults–the scheming ones, who try to take advantage of the well-meaning naive adults. These are the adversaries the children have to overcome, by sticking together and finding a way out of the mess. (Usually this means finding the one adult who will listen to them.) Miss Slighcarp especially is genuinely awful, as is Mr. Slighcarp/Grimshaw–in a less overt but even more realistic way.

What’s interesting to me about this book in particular is that, in a certain light, it looks like a familiar kind of morality tale. Bonnie and Sylvia are well-born, true-hearted, brave, and kind. Therefore, as is right, they eventually triumph. And yet, all through the book there’s also an ever-present sense of real danger. The triumphant ending is not assured. So although the story has the outward trappings of an uncomplicated “good children get their reward” trope, there’s a kind of subversiveness that’s lying just behind it. Aiken keeps reminding us about the howling wolves, and the dangers of the Slighcarps and Briskets of the world, and in doing so she makes it very easy to imagine the ways the story could go wrong.

On the other hand, the subversiveness only goes so far–I found myself frustrated at several points, with the assumption of Sir Willoughby as a good landowner who all the servants are happy to work for. There’s a lot of “dear Miss Bonnie” from the staff, who seem uncommonly attached to her. And finally, there’s an uncomfortable romantic view of Simon’s situation and life, which does express his general goodnatured optimism, but which also has a ring of “he’s happy with nothing, why aren’t you?”

It’s not that I expect some sort of political tract. I’m not even sure I think Aiken believed what she was writing, exactly. (The later books move away from this to a large degree.) Rather, I think that because she’s still writing within a certain type of story, and because she doesn’t quite have the experience or vision to reach beyond it yet, she’s still caught in this slightly antiquated sense of class and roles.

I do also have to say that on this reading I found the resolution oddly unexciting, especially considering the fact that there are literal wolves involved. It’s all a bit handwavey. Aiken is fond of ending books with a sudden surprise (in this case the reappearance of Bonnie’s parents), but in this case I didn’t feel there was much tension to begin with.

However, it is very satisfying to see Miss Slighcarp get her comeuppance.

All in all, I can’t quite say that this is my favorite book of the series–it’s clearly a first book, and Bonnie and Sylvia have nothing on Dido, or even Sophie. But it is certainly a memorable beginning.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1962, Jonathan Cape

 

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Current Reads: 9-21-2016

I am still reading ALL OF THE BOOKS, but I’m trying to keep my pile down to a reasonable size, and also DNF books if they’re not working for me regardless of how well they came recommended.

current

 

Jupiter Pirates: The Rise of Earth by Jason Fry: YEP I’m still reading this one–but the middle lost my attention a bit and I finished several other books ahead of it. I sat down and read a good chunk this morning, so I’m hopeful I’ll finish this one soon. I still like it, but one of the storylines is just…weird.

The Mystic Marriage by Heather Rose Jones: I really liked the first of Jones’s Alpennia books, and then it took me forever to actually ILL this one. I’m about 40 pages in and loving it!

American Girls by Alison Umminger: I started this one awhile back and then it kept getting bumped down the priority list, although the beginning really hooked me. I’m curious to know how the rest will play out–plus I’d like to be able to chime in if/when it gets discussed on the PrintzBlog.

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar: Another one that I started and then set down–I’m always interested in families and how the choices of past generations echo. This one is right on the mg/YA line, and I don’t have any firm thoughts about that yet.

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips: Also still reading this one–I’ve been doing it a chapter at a time, but I’ll probably try to finish it up this week.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: The last couple of weeks have been tough, so I put this one on hold because it’s so intense. However, the library copy is due back soon so I’m going to sit down with it this weekend!

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken: The next book in my Aiken re-read series! It’s the first one with Dido and I’m so excited.

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Currently reading: 9-7

All the books I'm actively reading. Send help,
All the books I’m actively reading. Send help.

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I don’t know how this happened–no, I do. I’ve been reading several intense books in slow spurts because they are really good but also my heart can’t handle too much at once. And then I’m trying to read several other books that have taken me a bit to get into, so I keep pulling a new one off the shelf and trying it. Anyway, from the top:

Dove Exiled by Karen Bao: Sequel to last year’s Dove Arising. I am finding the writing a little choppy, but I’m really interested in what Bao’s doing with the world and characters.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken: For October’s reading notes, so I won’t say much more. Except–this book is 168 pages long. One hundred sixty-eight! Take note, authors.

Perfect Liars by Kimberly Reid: This is a fun diverse teenage con/heist story–great for kids who have aged out of The Great Greene Heist.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine: I’m rereading this with librarian book club and auuugghhhh the emotions. They might actually be worse the second time through?

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi: It’s very difficult to say what’s happening in this book, but in a good way. (I tend to like texts that make you work for their meaning, as long as they’re not being jerks about it.)

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips: This book is making me feel way too many things. It’s fine. (I just DM the best/worst bits to the friend who recommended it to me. Thanks & you’re welcome.)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: A re-read because I wanted to and apparently wasn’t reading enough intense books? Yeah, I don’t know either.

Monstress by Marjorie Liu: My hold at the library FINALLY came in!! This is a lot more violent than I tend to like my comics, but the visual sensibility is so much my thing that I’m still reading. (Art deco-ish fantasy monsters=I’m there.)

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge: I JUST started this one, but I’ve gotten far enough in to be hooked. Definitely a story I’d only trust from an #ownvoices author, though!

Jupiter Pirates: The Rise of Earth by Jason Fry: Third in a middle grade SF series I’ve been enjoying! Fry has years of experience writing Star Wars tie-ins and he clearly has a good grasp of what kids like in their SF. I have a feeling that things are going to Happen in this one.

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Recent Reading 3-24-14

Four older books that I’ve read for the first time and had mixed reactions to.

lizzie brightLizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt: I loved a lot of this–the descriptions of the Maine coastline are so perfect, and the feeling of lived-in-ness in Turner’s life. His coming of age is thoughtful and lovely. And yet, I expected, from the title and the beginning of the book, that Lizzie Bright was a major character and I could not help noticing and being troubled by the way her voice disappears from the narrative except as an inspiration for Turner. This is not a small thing, and I can see a certain reading in which that’s the point and we’re supposed to be troubled by it. I don’t quite buy that reading–somehow the text doesn’t seem aware enough of what it’s doing for that to be the case. I don’t know, except that I loved the beginning so much and felt so disappointed by the end.

hide and seekHide and Seek by Ida Vos: Vos’s fictionalized memoir of her experiences in Holland during World War II. A great contribution to the picture of the Jewish experience in that time and place, but the prose–at least in translation–is so spare as to be uninteresting. I’m very glad to have read it, but not particularly driven to read it again.

kingdom under the seaKingdom Under the Sea by Joan Aiken, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski: A collection of Eastern European folktales, with illustrations by the always wonderful Pienkowski. I liked them, and yet the power of the illustrations was diminished by the small size of the book, and also nothing can ever replace the series of Russian folktales that I grew up on. These retellings somehow lacked some of the power of Aiken’s best works; they were fine, but so straightforward that they become almost unmemorable. Anyway, glad I tried them, but nothing I’m raving about.

sun horse moon horseSun Horse, Moon Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff: Sutcliff’s prose is amazing as always–the descriptions of the land, of the seasons, of the drawings are simply gorgeous. This is a slight little book, and it shares many of the same themes as Mark of the Horse Lord, and yet it’s simply not as impressive as Mark, perhaps because we don’t have as long to get to know the characters, perhaps because Lubrin Dhu isn’t Phaedrus.