The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Joan Aiken)


Set in an alternative 1832 where the monarch is James III (implying that the House of Hanover never came to the throne) and wolves have entered England during a bad winter by crossing the Channel Tunnel (not opened in our reality until 1994). Unlike the children’s books of today – this was first published in the early 1960s – the whole thing proceeds at a rip-roaring pace with very little build-up. There are a number of other books in the series, all set in the same alternate history but I don’t know if all the characters are the same in each.

We plunge straight into the situation: the wealthy parents of Bonnie are about to embark on a trip abroad for the mother’s health, and a governess, Miss Slighcarp, who is also a distant relation, has been hired to run the estate and teach Bonnie and her cousin, Sylvia. Meanwhile, Sylvia, raised by the impoverished sister of Bonnie’s father, who is too proud to admit her situation, is put aboard a train to travel to the country estate.

A seemingly jovial man travels in the same compartment and makes himself useful when the train is attacked by wolves. But soon after arrival, both he and the governess show their true colours and the adventure is underway – incorporating boys who live in the woods, geese, a Dickensian orphanage and a shipwreck, among other elements.

This is one of those magical books that seems to be written for children, but is equally captivating for adults. There’s just something about the dream-like setting: the dark, ironic humour, the warm romantic friendship of the two girls that makes you feel this is really a dream you’re having as an adult of what childhood could have been like. Scary, beautiful and fascinating, instead of being like most people’s real childhoods – fearful, humiliating and dull.

The story is told in bold strokes with melodrama, larger than life villains, faithful retainers who are indispensable to the children’s safety, and parents or guardians who are conveniently got out of the way by various mechanisms. The only slight detraction is that the wolves of the title fade away by the time the weather warms. Otherwise an engaging and speedy read.

I’d definitely give another one in the series a try if I was in the mood for a fun and easy read.


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