As much as I enjoy reading children’s literature, I equally enjoy re-reading those select novels that have had an especially profound effect on me. I’m referring to those rare gems that once discovered are never completely forgotten. For me they are classics such as The Lord of the Rings, Charlotte’s Web, The Wind in the Willows, and The Secret Garden, as well as many others. “Old friends” like these linger deep in my memory, gently nagging until I relent and dust them off and enter once again into their very special and timeless world.
One such “friend” is The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. Ms. Aiken (1924-2004) wrote over one hundred books for adults and children, but is best known for this gripping adventure published in 1962. The first of the Wolves Chronicles, it is set in an alternate history where a fictitious King James III rules England, but has the familiar feel of nineteenth century England. Willoughby Chase is a sprawling estate in the English countryside that boasts a huge mansion, with dozens of servants, scores of rooms, dungeons, and even a secret passage – all for one small family – sturdy and impulsive Bonnie Green and her adoring parents Sir Willoughby and Lady Green.
The story opens in the dead of winter. Hungry wolves roam the countryside terrifying the locals and menacing the trains and carriages. Bonnie’s gentler and more ladylike cousin Sylvia has come to live with her on the estate because their Aunt Jane, Sylvia’s guardian, is too poor to properly care for her and too proud to ask for financial assistance. Bonnie’s parents are about to embark on a restorative trip abroad and will not return for several months. They have retained a distant relative, Miss Slighcarp to be the girls’ governess while they are gone. But Slighcarp (and her accomplices) have other plans, and the girls soon discover that their relatively sheltered lives are about to change – for the worst.