The Wolves of Willoughby Chase turned out to be our favourite family read over Christmas after Al borrowed it from the library. He sped through this classic children’s book in a couple of days so me and Little M picked it up too. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did because my childhood memories of the novel weren’t that great. Despite it being set in an alternative 19th century England – with wolves – it’s not really a fantasy tale. There isn’t any magic or paranormal activity, which my 8 year-old self found very disappointing. This time round I was prepared though and so with expectations set, I gave it a second chance. What I found was a world of wicked governesses, feisty girls and secret passages – more than enough to warrant turning those pages.
Wicked wolves and a grim governess threaten Bonnie and her cousin Sylvia when Bonnie’s parents leave Willoughby Chase for a sea voyage. Left in the care of the cruel Miss Slighcarp, the girls can hardly believe what is happening to their once happy home. The servants are dismissed, the furniture is sold, and Bonnie and Sylvia are sent to a prison-like orphan school. It seems as if the endless hours of drudgery will never cease.
With the help of Simon the gooseboy and his flock, they escape. But how will they ever get Willoughby Chase free from the clutches of the evil Miss Slighcarp?
If you prefer your children’s fiction to be served with subtlety then it’s unlikely that you’ll like this one. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase verges on pantomime. The villains are pure evil, the protagonists are nice as pie. More than once you’ll be screaming ‘no way would that have happened!’. My advice to you at these moments is to shut your critical self in a cupboard for a while and go with the flow. Aiken is a skilled writer with a knack for creating the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Yes – the plot is predictable but remember that this was written for kids, not adults. And who doesn’t like a tidy structure sometimes?
The best bit about this book though is the friendship between cousins, Bonnie and Sylvia Green. Bonnie is hugely wealthy, yet she has a kind heart and a healthy disregard for authority. Her cousin, Sylvia, isn’t as strong willed, but as a team, the two girls are able to survive the darkest of times. Their loyalty and support for one another and others transcends every terrible act within this short novel.
Gripes? There are always flaws if you look for them, but we were too carried away with the adventure to stop and unpick the story. I was a little sad that the wolves turned out to be fairly superfluous. They’re metaphorical rather than essential. However, their presence adds to the oppressive atmosphere, and tells us to watch out for sharp teeth in the woods. This is an ideal children’s book for wintery days and cosy nights. And if you like the first one, there are 11 more books in the Wolves Chronicles series. We’re definitely ready to brave the wilds again.
- Publisher: Vintage Children’s Classics
- Number of Pages: 256pp
- Age Range: 9-12
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