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.