Sunday, June 23, 2013

How can a book of my childhood be 50 years old?

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is one of those books I remember so fondly from my childhood reading. I suspect it was not the only orphan-in-peril book I read in elementary school, but it is certainly the most vivid. It has been on my I-should-read-this-again list pretty much since I became a youth librarian, and I remember being surprised that it wasn’t available on audio.  But, in its 50th year, the smart publishers at Listening Library rectified this. They also found an unusual, but pretty terrific narrator to do the reading. More about that below.

If this wasn’t a favorite of your youth, here’s a brief synopsis. Sylvia is an orphan living with her great aunt in very genteel poverty at the top of a townhouse in London. The great aunt has rich relations, but doesn’t speak to them anymore. However, she realizes that Sylvia needs more than she can provide and makes arrangements to send her off to those relations and their boisterous daughter, Bonnie, at the family estate deep in the English countryside. This is what we now call an alternative 19th century England where wolves (who came to England through the recently opened Channel Tunnel) descend from the forests during lean winters and terrorize the people unable to find shelter at night. Timid Sylvia has a very scary journey to Willoughby Chase when wolves attack her train. Fortunately, a strange man comes to her rescue.  It turns out that this man is also on his way to Willoughby Chase to join his friend Miss Slighcarp, who will be the governess for Bonnie and Sylvia while Bonnie’s parents take a journey to warmer climes in the hopes of curing Lady Green of her mysterious wasting disease.

But, of course, Miss Slighcarp turns out to be more than a little unpleasant (how could she not, with that name?), bundling the girls off to Aiken’s equivalent of Dotheboys Hall, when she learns that Lord and Lady Green have perished on their ocean journey. And soon, Bonnie and Sylvia – accompanied by their friend Simon the goose boy who lives on the Willoughby Chase grounds – make their escape in the hopes of making their way to join Sylvia’s great aunt in London.

The two girls are extremely plucky, of course, but their journey nonetheless is a perilous one, full of close calls and lupine terrors. Even when they arrive in London, their troubles are not over, but – in the end – good does indeed triumph. Aiken’s got a sly sense of humor that keeps an adult’s interest, but she also knows what children want to read: toe-tingling suspense combined with the world put aright in the end.  The book doesn’t seem the slightest bit as if it’s 50 years old, which makes it a classic I guess. The delightful Edward Gorey covers don’t hurt one single bit.

Aiken’s daughter Lizza Aiken narrates the novel.  Before the story starts, she also reads a brief intro-duction (that might be of more interest to adults than children, which means I enjoyed listening to it) describing the circumstances (unexpected widowhood [shades of The Railway Children]) that led her to write down the stories she had created for her two children. Joan Aiken was clearly a wonderful bedtime storyteller, as the chapter endings are cliffhangers and the child heroes easy to identify with.  

In her narration of the book itself Lizza Aiken is a surprisingly good reader.  She has a fairly soft (but not difficult to hear) pleasant reading voice that has a dare-I-say grandmotherly (let’s pause for a moment of eek-dom as she is just a few years older than I) calm and confidence.  A listener knows she is in good hands with this reader.  Her familiarity with the story shows in the way she expertly paces the narrative. She doesn’t try to create any voices for the characters, which is just fine as this novel for elementary school readers has dialogue that is easily followed with the “Bonnie said” convention. Aiken does change her voice enough so that you know you are listening to an adult or a child, but that is the extent of her character development.

I was actually surprised how much I liked this (unlike the occasional book of my childhood that doesn't measure up to an adult reading).  Do you suppose this was the start of my love affair with the English novel?

I wrote this and the previous post during a long layover in O’Hare Airport. I had to write them in Word first because there is no free wifi there. Last year at this time, I was waiting in Los Angeles’ Union Station and encountered the same damn thing as I tried to post an entry. Am I really so spoiled in the tech-friendly Pacific Northwest?  Is free wifi in transportation hubs an exception rather than the rule?  It’s bad enough you have to pay in a hotel room (a room that you are already paying for), but in transit?  Free is a no-brainer.

P.S.  In answer to the question raised in my post title, it's best not to think about it.

[The illustration of students at Dotheboys Hall is from The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and was retrieved from the British Library.]

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (The Wolves Chronicles, Book 1) by Joan Aiken
Narrated by Lizza Aiken
Listening Library, 2012. 4:48  

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