Sunday, October 5, 2014

Book Review: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (1962)

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is the story of two girls - Bonnie and Sylvia - who live in a fictitious time period which most closely resembles the Georgian period of British history. Sylvia, who is an orphan, comes by train to stay with her cousin Bonnie at Willoughby Chase, just before Bonnie's parents set sail on a voyage, leaving a distant cousin named Miss Slighcarp in charge of their possessions and affairs. The girls immediately realize that Miss Slighcarp is evil, a fact which she proves herself by firing all the servants, wearing Bonnie's mother's clothing without permission, and sending both girls to a workhouse disguised as a boarding school. Together with their friend, Simon, Bonnie and Sylvia must hatch a plan to escape from Miss Slighcarp and save Willoughby Chase from her evil clutches.

This book is wonderfully well-written. Using rich vocabulary, and specific, memorable details Aiken's descriptions bring to life the myriad settings and characters which make up her fictional world. From the girls' boarding school uniforms, to the wolves which roam the countryside, to Willoughby Chase itself - everything is vivid, unique, and completely real. Though there are fewer wolves in the story than I was expecting, the threat of their encroachment upon the girls' safety makes a wonderful metaphor for the problems and enemies they face as the story progresses. Also perfect are the names given to the many minor characters, especially Abednego Gripe, the lawyer and Mrs. Brisket, the director of the horrible school where the girls are sent.

The author's daughter Lizza Aiken is the narrator for the audiobook edition of this title, and no one could be more perfect. She has just the right voice to evoke the story's intended tone and mood, and her dramatization of different characters' voices is spot-on as well as just plain entertaining. She ranks (along with Elizabeth Sastre of the Shoes books) as one of my favorite audiobook readers of all time.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is truly an adventure story, and it will appeal to readers who enjoy quests and tales of escape. Though the story is dark and even scary at times, sensitive readers need not fret, as there are a variety of surprises in the latter parts of the story that brighten things up considerably. This is also a great story for highlighting and celebrating the courage, resourcefulness, and heroism of young girls. There are 11 other titles set in this same universe, including a prequel, which are listed on the author's website.

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