Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, novelist/drunken folk art collector Laura Lippman reads 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase', Joan Aiken's 1962 novel in which two cousins pretty much kick ass all across England, with a little help from loyal retainers and some very brave geese.
After tea . . . the children were set to mending. The meal had consisted of bread, dry this time, and a cup of water. Sylvia had contrived to save a half of her morsel of bread for Bonnie, and she pushed it into Bonnie's hand later, as they sat working in the biggest classroom, huddled together for warmth. This was the only time of the day they were allowed to talk to each other a little.
. . . "We can't stay here, Sylvia."
"No, we can't," breathed Sylvia in heartfelt agreement. "But how can we possibly get away? And where would we go?"
"I'll think of some plan," said Bonnie with invincible optimism. "And you think, too, Sylvia. Think for all you are worth."
Sylvia nodded. Then she whispered, "Hush, Diana Brisket's looking at us," and bent her head over the enormous rent in the satin petticoat she was endeavoring to repair."
Whenever I visit my parents - not often enough as they would be the first to tell you - I always end up thinking about Maude. Yes, that Maude. One of the many All in the Family spin-offs of the 1970s, Maude centered on an "uncompromising, enterprising, anything but tranquilizing " woman from Tuckahoe, New York. (By the way, several Internet sources claim it's "that old compromising," which makes NO sense.) Route 404, which winds through Maryland and Delaware, skirts Tuckahoe State Park, so every time I come to that part of the trip - well, then there's Maude.
And now that I've got the Maude song fizzing around in everyone else's head - what was really so extraordinary about this outspoken-but-privileged woman? Yes, she was mouthy, and, yes, she had one of television's first legal abortions, but her restless intelligence now seems wasted to me. Did Maude work outside the home, or even volunteer? (In the home, she had Florida to clean for her, at least until Florida got her spin-off.) What did she do other than battle with her husband and pal around with future Golden Girl roomie Rue McClanahan?
I had a better role model closer at hand. In 1969, three years before Maude debuted, my mother enrolled in graduate school, intent on becoming a children's librarian. There are many, many wonderful benefits to having a mother who wants to be a children's librarian – weekly trips to the big library downtown, reading all the Newbery Award winners together, even Gay-Neck, the Story of a Pigeon, God help us - but the thing that stands out for me was the wonder of my mother's class project. Using knitting needles and index cards, she and a classmate created what can only be described as a non-computerized search engine. They notched the cards with a series of holes, some open at the top. The open holes corresponded to key search criteria – author, reading level, subject matter. With the help of a numeric code, you inserted the needles into the cards and lifted; the cards that fell out were the ones that matched your criteria.
I have been thinking about my mother's class project because a chance re-encounter with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase convinced me that it is my personal platonic ideal of children's literature, the card that would fall if I could set up a system controlling for all my favorite things in books:
Orphans, real or de facto
Nature Boys, a la Dickon
Specialized Schools - a boarding school, a school for the performing arts, an orphanage or - the dream that I have yet to find — an orphanage devoted to the performing arts.
Of course, there are lots of satisfying books that score in only one or two categories. I adore Maud Hart Lovelace's happy families, thanks to the detailed descriptions of Merry Widow hats, shirtwaists and jabots, but Deep Valley, Minnesota, is far from England. Elizabeth Enright's four-book series about the Melendy family offers only tantalizing rumors of boarding school, and only in the final book. E. Nesbit come awfully close, especially if you're willing to consider the Psammead [cq] a boy with a special connection to nature. (Hey, he lives in a sandpit, it's harder to get much closer to nature than that.) Noel Streatfeild's "shoe" books qualify, although she often softened her villains in the final act. Except for Mrs. Winter, mother of Dulcie in Dancing Shoes. Remember how she turns away, at the end, when Rachel is revealed to be the big talent in the family? Could someone please tell me why the adorable Uncle Tom is married to that woman? This has bothered me for years.
But The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is the gold standard, the ne plus ultra of the Lippman COVENS Rule. Throw in an opening that reads like the YA version of James Joyce's The Dead and... oh, excuse me, I passed out briefly from ecstasy. Here, see for yourselves:
It was dusk, winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.
And – damn you, Joan Aiken - it gets better. Chapter by chapter, event by event. Wolves has everything. A high-spirited rich girl (Bonnie Green), her virtuous poor relation (Sylvia Green), a tragic shipwreck, an evil governess, loyal retainers, an uncannily clever and gifted goose-tender, a horrible boarding school – run by Mrs. Brisket no less, who rewards snitches with little pieces of cheese. And I'm not even going to tell you how the geese foil a dastardly crime.
Aiken, the daughter of Conrad Aiken, is a brisk tour guide. "Do try to keep up," she all but demands as the story steams along, "we have so much ground to cover." Sylvia, an orphan (O!) has left her Aunt Jane in London (E!) to go stay with cousin Bonnie, who will be de facto parentless (O!) while Lord Willoughby and Lady Green take a voyage intended to mend Lady Green's fragile health. Sylvia, genteel but poor, worries that her sole doll, Annabelle, will be humiliated by Bonnie's dolls for wearing only a "funny little old pelisse!" (C!) Sharing her train compartment with an odd man named Grimshaw (V!), she also frets about her aunt's very Victorian edict that she never eat in front of a stranger, difficult to do when a train ride takes almost two days. And in the middle of all these little girl anxieties, she has to deal with wolves, literal ones.
"[T]he train had stopped with a jerk. [Yes, his name is Mr. Grimshaw! Thank you, I'm here all week.]
‘Oh! What is it? Where are we?' she exclaimed before she could stop herself.
"No need to alarm yourself, miss,' said her companion, looking unavailingly out of the black square of window. ‘Wolves on the line, most likely – they often have trouble hereabouts.'
‘Wolves!' Sylvia stared at him in terror.
"They don't often get into the train, though,' he added reassuringly. ‘Two years ago they managed to climb into the guard's van and eat a pig, and once they got the engine driver – another had to be sent in a relief engine – but they don't often eat a passenger, I promise you.'"
If Sylvia was reassured by the notion that the wolves don't OFTEN eat passengers, she is much braver than I. Yet the wolves turn out to be among the more benign forces that threaten Sylvia and Bonnie in this book. Nature can be thwarted, it turns out. People are much more trickier.
Things sour quickly at Willoughby Manor. Miss Slighcarp (V!), the new governess - and a distant relation - is about as nice as one would expect, given that her name is Miss Slighcarp. She wastes no time trying on Lady Green's clothes - including (swoon) "a rose-colored crepe with aiguillettes of diamonds on the shoulders. It did not fit her exactly." (Nice bitchy aside there from meek little Sylvia.) Mr. Grimshaw, the mysterious man from Sylvia's train, is skulking about, and no good ever came from skulking. Then news comes that the Willoughbys' ship has sunk, and the girls are packed off quickly to the "boarding school" (S!) run by Mrs. Brisket (V!). The only coddled child in the place is Mrs. Brisket's own Diana, a selfish brat, and there is a wonderful scene involving Bonnie, Diana and some fresh eggs, in which you will cheer because someone does NOT get slapped.
A quick aside about orphans: For me, the "O" is the central letter in COVENS. Why do I love them so much? It's true, I was a latch-key kid, but my mother didn't start working until I was in junior high, so I had the best of both worlds. The simple fact is that most children's books benefit when some sort of contrivance whisks the parents offstage. It doesn't have to be death (although there are a lot of dead moms in my favorite books) or a demanding job (lots of widowers, too, throwing themselves into their work since mom's demise). An adults-only trip or troubling surgery (The Time Garden, Knight's Castle) works just as well. And there's always boarding school! (The Great Brain at the Academy, The Fog Comes in On Little Pig's Feet, Apples Every Day.) But, of course, we don't want them to stay parent-less. That would be much too bleak.
In Wolves, the real orphans finally receive much-deserved succor, while the hateful Diane Brisket finds herself quite alone in the world. Yet it is Aiken's treatment of Diana, in the final act of comeuppances, that makes me love the novel even more.
The orphans, still dazed at their good fortune, sat at a table of their own, eating roast turkey and kindly averting their gaze from the pale cheeks and red eyes of Diana Brisket, who, having been in a position to bully and hector as much as she pleased, was now reduced to a state where she had not a friend to stand by her . . . Diana had nowhere to go and was forced, willy-nilly, to stay with the orphans (where, it may be said in passing, wholesome discipline and the example of Aunt Jane's unselfish nature soon wrought an improvement in her character.)
You see, there are no bad children - only bad adults. Otis Spofford, Dulcie-Pulsie in Dancing Shoes, even The Bully of Barkham Street all have their sides to the story. But grown-ups? Grown-ups can really suck. Possibly because they did not receive a timely intervention from Aunt Jane. I would add that to COVENS – No bad children, only bad grown-ups – but it would screw up an acronym that took me, literally, hours to formulate. Please don't tell my editor, who thinks I'm working on a novel. Oh, wait - like every other sentient female reader, she follows Fine Lines religiously. Damn.