Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book Review: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

Written by Joan Aiken
Illustrations by Pat Marriott
Middle Grade Fiction (RL 5.6)
Ages 8 (younger if read aloud) and up

This story starts in wintertime, when the wolves of the English country wolds are starving and roaming in packs to bring down anything they can. Into this world comes shy, young Sylvia, sent away from her aunt in London to be the companion and playmate to her cousin Bonnie Green of  Willoughby Chase. After a harrowing train journey, Sylvia arrives and is warmly welcomed by the effusive, hoydenish Bonnie. The next day sees the departure of Sir Willoughby Green and Lady Green, bound overseas for poor Lady Green's health. The girls are left in the charge of the new governess, Miss Slighcarp, whose true evil nature is revealed upon the parents' departure. In short order, she dismisses all the servants except a handful of the worst ones (and one who only pretended to be bad so he could stay on and watch over the girls), sells the furniture and pockets the money, takes away all of the toys, and locks Bonnie in a cupboard. With the help of James, the loyal servant who stayed on to watch over them as best he can, they discover that Miss Slighcarp has truly nefarious plans for Willoughby Chase. But when the girls try to solicit outside help, they are discovered and sent away to an orphan school run by Mrs. Brisket. At the school, their life is one of drudgery, harshness and hopelessness until one day, a young boy from the wolds by Willoughby Chase comes to find them and help them escape. But where will they go?

We've finally finished the book! And what a grand adventure it was! Set in Victorian England, this story had all the plot elements guaranteed to keep my girls glued to the story as I read it aloud to them. They Ate. It. Up. It's a story that probably works best as a read-aloud the first go-round. The language structure is perfect for the story, old-fashioned, reflecting perfectly the age in which the story takes place, although the story itself was written in 1962. But it might be harder for children who have never been exposed to that antiquated structure to follow, which is why I suggest reading it aloud first.

I had so much fun reading this aloud. It was such fun giving life to all the wonderful characters. The names of characters make me laugh, they're so deliciously perfect for a book set in this period: Pattern (the maid), Miss Slighcarp, Mr. Grimshaw (the accomplice), Mr. Gripe (the lawyer), Dr. Morne, Mrs. Brisket, Mr. Wilderness, etc. And the internal pictures by Pat Marriott have a vagueness that adds splendidly to the menacing feel. (The cover illustration is by Edward Gorey. Isn't it wonderfully sinister?)

If you are looking for old-fashioned Victorian adventure story, with Gothic elements, plucky heroines, nasty bad 'uns, then this is the story for you.


  1. You may already know this, but Wolves is just the start of a fantastic series with 11 books in all. The next 2 books are Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket. If you want the whole list email me! kathy@bookskidslike.com

  2. Bless you, Kathy! I knew it was the first of a series but I didn't know which order they go in. I'd love that list. If you could go ahead and post it in the comments, that would be great, as I'm sure others would be interested, too.

  3. I remember enjoying this book when I was younger.

  4. I would love to know the order of the series, too. With some series it can be hard to figure out.

  5. Okay, I did some research and found the order, by date written:

    The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
    Black Hearts in Battlesea
    Nightbirds on Nantucket
    The Whispering Mountain
    The Stolen Lake
    Limbo Lodge (a.k.a. Dangerous Games)
    The Cuckoo Tree
    Dido and Pa
    Is (a.k.a. Is Underground)
    Cold Shoulder Road
    Midwinter Nightengale
    The Witch of Clattershaws

  6. Bigfoot, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I've clicked on your link and had to smile. You have a new follower.

  7. I've never read this one, either, but I think my girls would love it! Were yours scared by it?

  8. Amy, I asked the girls if the book scared them.
    Olivia (sheepishly): Some parts, but I loved it.
    Karina: The wolves and Miss Slighcarp and then when they kept getting in trouble at the school.
    My take: I think it was a case of delicious fear: that it-scares-me-so-good feeling? It's a nail-biter of a story because I think it deals with some fears that children already have: fear of being gotten by wild beasts, fear of evil people getting them; fear of losing their parents. I think that's partly why they were so wrapped up in it. But despite the "scary" parts, there was also resolution, kind people encountered, etc. that helped ease the tension. And it helped that the relationship between Bonnie and Sylvia was at all times loving and supportive, so there was always someone to count on, if you see what I mean. My girls commented several times during the reading that they were glad that Bonnie and Sylvia had each other.

  9. Thank you for compiling that list. I've been interested in those for a long time. I never realized there were so many in the series. My "to read" list just got even longer.

    Thanks, too, for visiting our blog.

  10. I have loved this one ever since I was 8 or so...every time I had vanilla icecream I would stir it till almost liquid and pretend it was the porridge they eat after they escape from the orphanage!

    But Black Hearts in Battersea is, in my opinion, even better...

  11. The other books are about Simon, the goose boy, rather than Bonnie or Sylvia, right Charlotte? From what little I can find, the other books in the series seem to feature him and the friends he makes along the way.

  12. Many of the books deal with a wonderful character named Dido Twite as well as Simon.

  13. Yep, Bonnie and Sylvie are sadly left behind...but Simon is a great character. And Dido, too, although as a child it took me a long time to warm to her!

  14. I LOVED, LOVED this novel as a kid. Haven't reread it in ages. Your post inspires me to reread it.