Elizabeth Fama's Reviews > The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
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Oct 07, 2008

** spoiler alert ** I loved this book as a kid, and I recently re-read it to see -- with an author's eye -- what captivated me, and what I could learn for my own children's novels. Interestingly, what I learned is that I would never have written anything like it, because of how simplistic and formulaic it is at times, and yet I enjoyed it, which probably means I need learn to let go a little of my overly-precise -- aw, heck anal -- attention to plausibility, scientific fact, and historical accuracy.

As a kid, I wasn't the type to read the copyright page, so I took it at face value that this book was written somewhere around 1850, when steam engines and carriages were in their heyday. So I was surprised to see as an adult that it was written in 1962, and that was my first inkling that this was really a sort of homage to Gothic fiction. That softened the edge of some of the plot and themes that are hard for an adult to buy. For instance, it bothered me to no end -- but why should it? -- that Simon successfully lives in a cave, eating chestnuts and raising geese for a living. What sort of horrific vitamin deficiencies, with resultant scurvy and rickets, must this child have? (Joan Aiken is careful to ease our conscience on this matter by implying that Sir Willoughby is more or less willing to adopt Simon, or let him work for him, if he falls on hard times out in that cave.) Even tiny inaccuracies bothered me: the children spend months outside, sleeping in barns "whenever it rained at night." It rains almost EVERY night in the English countryside! It's freezing in the spring in the English countryside! And there's more: the aunt recovers from a near-death experience with a little broth (and, whaddya know, her neighbor happens to be a caring doctor and generous human being); Mr. Grimshaw kills a wolf with a shard of glass, but manages not to cut his own hand; Lady Green actually DOES recover from a vague but life-threatening illness by taking the ocean air; The police bring children along to potentially dangerous crime scenes as "witnesses"; Bonnie shows only the briefest misery over her parents' death in a ship wreck, even when it's independently confirmed by the friendly doctor; and then lo and behold, her parents miraculously survive, having subsisted on an equally miraculous box of fruit in their raft. Homage to Gothic fiction or not, these conveniently wrapped plot ends would not make it past a contemporary editor...or would they, and I have no sense of magic? Probably the latter.

Finally, and this is less important, I was completely taken aback by Sir Willoughby's jovial pet names for his daughter!

But there's an important take-away point for me as an author. I rely too much on precision, and fact, and research. Kids love to believe that a boy could live in a cave if he were resourceful and independent-minded. Half the joy of being a child is still having the imagination that makes everything seem possible. I hope I can get back to that place when I'm writing my next manuscript.

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