My love of reading does not distinguish me from the rest of my family. Generations of readers, a few volumes in family for a hundred years, nothing special, but nothing to be ashamed of. High brow, but also crime stories, thrillers… Grandma read French romances in original, Grandpa received boxes full of Chandler, Le Carre and Clancy paperbacks from his brother lucky enough to get to Canada after the War had ended. I’m the book-craziest one, but only by a few degrees.
Fantasy, though, that was something new. Older cousin gave me Hobbit when I was… about ten, I believe, but one of the most beloved books of my early childhood, book that sparked my interest in supernatural fiction, was A Room Full of Leaves, an anthology of short stories by Joan Aiken. Goodreads lists it as a Polish edition of A Small Pinch of Weather, but it’s not precise, Polish version lacks some stories from this collection while including some from A Harp of Fishbones and Other Stories. It’s not strictly fantasy, but mysteries happening to regular people in a world otherwise exactly like ours. So, a tried and true technique older than rigid genre distinctions. I liked the melancholy of most of these stories, the impossible things happening to their young protagonists. I wasn’t able to catch their Englishness, mythical references. I need to revisit this world.
But Aiken’s most famous works were beyond my reach then, and I wasn’t even aware of their existence. The Wolves Chronicles, a long series of novels for younger readers, never translated into Polish. That’s a real problem. Picture books with a few lines written below illustrations, and comics designed for small kids – it doesn’t matter whether they’re in Polish in English, the younglings have to had them read to by someone else and I can translate on the fly. But books you’re supposed to read on your own among your first literary adventures… these, if not available in your native tongue, might miss their perfect moment.
And it happened with me and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, a highly pleasurable read, something that brought me some joy in between Black Company and bleak non-fictions on Polish stupid history. But it magic would be much stronger if I got it before my tenth birthday. It’s not a critique, the books was not written for not-so-young-adults, but I wish I could have read way earlier. Now it missed some of the magic A Room Full of Leaves still holds for me. Partly because this is not a mystery novel, but rather an alternate history one, depicting a fictional XIX century England plagued by hordes of wolves that got there through a tunnel under the Channel. I seem to recall reading that spiritual ancestors of Brexiters were really afraid of such things…
Anyway, it’s an archetypical story about kids left alone with wicked adults who are supposed to be taking care of them, but instead abuse and cheat them. There are hardships and despair, and strong spirit, humour, adventure, and also a happy ending, because, well, it is a children’s novel.
Our main protagonist, Bonnie, is a daring heiress to a nice but naive aristocrat presumed to be lost at sea, Sylvia – her poorer, but much more ladylike cousin, Simon – friend and a young runaway living in, and off, the forest. Together they will confront Miss Slighcarp, their wicked governess and a con-artist.
They will suffer, and prevail, finding strength in friendship and help from good people. It’s a short, well written story that makes you root for the heroines and smile with relief when the world order is restored.
Reading it now, I could not help but notice how conservative the book is, even taking into account its target audience. Nothing fundamentally challenges the order of the good old world already long gone in the 1960-ties. Not a trace of social critique so prevalent in Harry Potter (yet subtle enough not to spoil the fun, and to be completely missed by so many fanfic writers…). Good lords, dependable lawyers, caring and loyal servants prevail over wicked upstarts, con-artists trying to cheat their way up the social ladder. Then everything goes back to as it always had been, and should be, and the restored lord of the manor dispenses the rewards…
Is it fair to raise such questions here? I don’t mind Tolkien and many of his copycats, I enjoy classic myths from all around the world… but am slightly disappointed here. Maybe because it’s not fantasy, and written so long after, say, Dickens?
After all, it is a very nice story about a very pro-active little girl, and Aiken is master at using suggestive language to create great atmosphere. It is very trope-ish, but it’s also a love letter to the kind of Victorian novels written and read seriously a couple of generations earlier. Written these days, it would perhaps challenge the archetypes more, but it’s still highly readable.
I don’t think there is a point in my assigning a score here, but it has my recommendation. Although I prefer Aiken’s short stories 🙂