The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

I may not believe in fate but I do believe in Serendipity, that sunny-natured cousin between Destiny and Coincidence.  I’ve benefited from too many “happy accidents” in my life to believe otherwise.  My “best friends”, my husband, my home and my career all appeared when I was ready to find them, usually long after I had quit looking.  Some of the books I love presented themselves the same way but the first time I recognized this was when I found, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

 I was around twelve, a bit old for the book’s target audience, but I was looking for a story to enchant me, preferably set in England and very cheap because I didn’t have much spending money.   Even at that age I’d learned that the cheapest volumes in any bookstore are usually on the classical shelves and that is where I found Joan Aiken’s tale of an alternate England where James II sits on the throne and people shoot attacking wolves from moving trains.  “Wolves” is a thrilling and well-paced kid’s book and very Dickensian in its execution.   The heroes were sympathetic and believable, the villains are terrifying and the characters had the most evocative names: imagine a governess named Miss Slighcarp, searching the rooms of a country estate while the mysterious Mr. Grimshaw lurks in the library.  Standing in the bookstalls, I felt like I had been transported into some Victorian version of the board game “Clue.”  I had fallen in love.

I still love the book although I see the influences more readily.  Besides the Dickens,  there’s a Bronte influence in the plot as well as a touch of Roald Dahl. That’s part of what makes it good   and I’d bet Wolves influenced its share of contemporary “kid-lit” writers like Rawlings, Gaiman and Lemony Snicket.  By the way, if you manage to lay hands on a copy, try to find the one with the red/black/white cover drawn by Edward Gorey.   The drawing is a perfect match.

Wolves is the first in a series of stories Joan Aiken published about this alternate universe but I never found the sequels as interesting, mainly because they didn’t go back to the two heroines of Willoughby Chase, Bonnie and Sylvia Green.   I may go back and try them again but few things can match the happy accident of that day in Dodge City, Kansas when I reached out in hope and picked up The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.   I can only compare this to baseball: this story ripped the cover off the ball and sent the cork center to bounce somewhere past the parking lot.

The Books That Follow You Home…

To me, books are like Jack’s magic beans.  Think about poor old Jack, wandering to town with the family cow, hoping to trade Bossy in for a few days worth of chow.   Instead he winds up with a handful of beans his mom flings out the window after she hears of Jack’s impulse trade.   The beans don’t look like much in hand but they end up changing Jack’s life because they really have magical properties.   They can grow huge stalks overnight that take Jack to impossible places of terror and delight.   Because of the beans, Jack becomes a thief, a provider, a rich man and (almost) the giant’s lunch.   Because of the beans, Jack’s life changes forever.

Now some books are a lot like those beans.   In hard form, they are just words on a page, nothing to get excited or scared about and another person might not see much value in them.  But I think they have magical properties.  Like beans, they can take you to places and people you would never know otherwise.  They can transport you through time, like a TARDIS, then return you home for tea.  These stories don’t just give knowledge, they almost seem sentient.  When I was a kid and moving every year, my books were the friends that came with me from state to state.  They’ve moved from the shelves in my room to a place in my heart and many are still there today.  And though other volumes have joined them, there’s always room for the new books and more.   See what I mean?  Books are magic.

And that’s what I want to talk about: the stories and characters that follow you home and become part of you.   They can be fiction or non-fiction, classic, modern or indifferent, genre specific or fusion.  As long as they’re good.  Good enough to be thought about, good enough to be re-read, good enough to be shared.  Let’s talk about some good books

I don’t pretend to be a critic or literary expert.  I’ll share what I like and why, but I’d really like to hear which stories have meaning for you, which books followed you home from the library, the bookstore or school (a true sign of a book nut is the student who takes home the assigned text to study but conveniently “forgets” to return it at the end of the course.  I still have a few to turn in!) and stayed, like the stray cat, for a lifetime.  I’d really like to know which books get to you.

So pretend this is a great big lending library, pull up a comfortable chair and we’ll trade some magic beans.   You can even hang on to your cow.  And I hope you’ll like what you find.

%d bloggers like this: