Great Books Countdown – Number Ten
The 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. . .
A fall Saturday in 1963, small town Ohio. My neighbor friend had gone somewhere with her mother and I had nothing much to do. Happily, I was a sixth-grader and had my very own library card. Earlier that week, I’d borrowed a nice stack of tales to read. Outside, it was dark and rainy, which made for good reading time. This book with the red, white, and black cover was the one I picked.
What a rollicking, edge-of-your-seat story! I couldn’t put it down. I read and read and read – all afternoon – until I came to the last page. Never before had I taken a book from cover to cover in one day. Now that’s saying big stuff about how slam-dunk this book was then. And still is.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, was published in 1962 and it remains in print today. Ms. Aiken must have been a literary prodigy, as she wrote her first full-length novel when she was sixteen and published her first short story at seventeen.
Aiken married four years later, but ten years into the marriage, her husband died, leaving her with two children to raise. To keep a roof over their heads, she worked for a magazine, performing various editorial duties, but those jobs taught her much about the craft of writing. She published short stories for extra money, although her goal was to write a novel. She worked on the story of Bonnie Green for seven years (perseverance!) before she thought it good enough to submit for possible publication. This manuscript became The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and it was such a success, Aiken was able to quit her day job and write full time. (Another scenario that so many writers hope for and rarely see.)
Over the rest of her life, Aiken wrote more than one hundred books. These included collections of short stories, poems, and plays, and modern and historical novels for both adults and children. (Now, there’s a person who worked hard.)
The Wolves . . . is set in the 19th century, during the reign of a fictional King James the third. Huge numbers of wolves have migrated from Europe via a channel tunnel and are rampaging through the rural areas of England. Thus, the title. Willoughby Chase, the grand manor house, is much troubled by the influx of the savage wolves. All around, the landscape is gray and gloomy, perfect for a gothic adventure.
We meet Sir Willoughby and Lady Green, who are going on a trip to a warmer climate and leaving their daughter Bonnie in the care of a fourth cousin, Miss Slighcarp. (Hint: names of characters indicate goodness or villainy.) Bonnie’s cousin Sylvia takes the train from London to stay with Bonnie at the manor house and, while on the ride, Sylvia encounters a mysterious and rather worrisome man. When she arrives at Willoughby Chase, lo and behold! That same man has arrived there, too! His name is Mr. Grimshaw and he appears to be good buddies with Miss Slighcarp. Oh, dear.
Immediately, the two of them show they’re plotting underhanded things. (Even more oh, dear.) They take over the household and dismiss all the loyal servants. Bonnie and Sylvia are locked in their rooms, awaiting a send-off to a dreadful orphanage – a terrible fate. But these two girls are plucky and resourceful. Will they talk back to Miss Slighcarp? Will they stand up to gruesome Mrs. Brisket at the orphanage? Will Pattern, their kindly maid, and Simon, the goose boy, manage a successful escape for the heroines?
Most important, will they outwit and thwart the criminal intentions of the evil Miss Slighcarp and the vile Mr. Grimshaw? And will Bonnie’s parents ever return from their trip?
Yes, it’s a kid’s story, but a darn good one. After fifty-eight years, it still holds up.
Five stars! Highly recommended for anyone on a rainy afternoon.