Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

I can already tell that 2016 is going to be a year of rereading. I used to do a lot more of that than I have done recently; when I was a kid I would read favorite books over and over, but somehow in recent years I came around to the idea that I have less time to read now, so any time spent on a book I've already read is just time taken away from all the fabulous new books that I claim I've been looking forward to.

I suspect it's closer to the truth to say that the time I spend on video games is just time taken away from rereading the books that I love, and that reading those books again would make me happier than getting a new campaign high score in Kingdoms of Middle-Earth.

I'm putting it to the test this year. In the first two weeks of January I've already reread four books. Granted, one was because I'd simply forgotten I already read that one, so it might as well have been new to me, but the other three I loved as a kid.

On New Year's Day I reread The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken.

I actually stumbled across the second book in that series first, at the library where my mom took me to stock up on books every Saturday. I forget now why I picked up Black Hearts in Battersea; probably something to do with the Edward Gorey cover. Looking back on it I think this may have been my first introduction to the concept of alternative history, though at the time I wasn't familiar enough with the history of England to notice what was different about the Hanoverian pretenders.

When I realized that there was an earlier book in the series, I thought that because the library didn't own that one I would never get to read it. I had never heard of the concept of interlibrary loan back then, and in any case, I was the kind of library patron who makes me really sad now that I work in a library: if I couldn't find something on my own, I gave up instead of asking the librarian for help. I'm not sure what I thought the librarians were there for, but I didn't want to bother them.

Imagine my shock when I subsequently stumbled across a copy of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase on a bookshelf in my own house. Apparently it had belonged to one of my older siblings, and though I had cheerfully read their copies of Winnie the Pooh and Black Beauty and The Adventures of Robin Hood, I had overlooked this book year after year. Probably because it didn't have an Edward Gorey cover.

It's a simple enough story: the orphaned Sylvia comes to stay at Willoughby Chase with her rich cousin Bonnie just as Bonnie's parents, Lord and Lady Willoughby, depart for sunny foreign climes for the sake of Lady Willoughby's health, leaving a distant relation, Miss Slighcarp, as Bonnie and Sylvia's governess. However, Miss Slighcarp has nefarious plans to take over the estate; she promptly dismisses the servants, sells off the furniture, and ships the girls off to the kind of boarding school that makes Jane Eyre's school look like a holiday in the south of France. With the help of Simon, a boy who raises geese at Willoughby Chase, Bonnie and Sylvia run away from their school and make their way to London, where they hope their aunt Jane and Lord Willoughby's lawyer can sort everything out.

I wasn't as thrilled by it all as I remember being as a kid, but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable story, especially Bonnie's frequent displays of temper. There's not much alternative history in this one, aside from the fact that in the early 1800s there's already a Channel Tunnel, and wolves from northern Europe have used it to recolonize the island of Britain. The actual starving wolves are a constant lurking presence in the first half of the novel, but it's the metaphorical wolves that pose the real threat.

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