Do you ever long for adventure, for things to be different? To be tired and scared, racing across the frozen landscape, running for your life, with the howls of wolves in your ears, the sound of their footsteps pounding behind you and their hot breath panting on the back of your neck?
Yeah, me neither. Too cold and scary!
Still, it’s fun to read about a time when wolves roamed the country scaring people, or to imagine yourself in that kind of situation. If you like this kind of adventure, with chills and thrills and wolves and a little history, you’ll like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken.
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Sir Willoughby and Lady Green are happy to welcome their poor niece, Sylvia, to join their daughter Bonnie at their grand home, Willoughby Chase. Bonnie is quite looking forward to having another girl around…her home is very far from any other children, and she has always wanted a sister to play with. She figures that a cousin the same age is the next best thing.
Sylvia is quiet and proper, unlike sturdy tomboy Bonnie. The girls seem to enjoy each other’s company though, and find many things in common. Which is a very good thing, as it turns out. Because both their lives are about to be turned upside down.
Because Lady Green is not well, Sir Willoughby takes her off on an ocean voyage, leaving the girls in the care of Miss Slighcarp, their governess. Miss Slighcarp turns out to be a wicked, cruel woman, who seems more interested in the money she can squeeze from Willoughby Chase, neglecting the girls’ lessons and inviting a strange lawyer, Mr. Grimshaw, to go through all of Sir Willoughby’s papers. Bonnie doesn’t seem to notice at first, enjoying the time off to show Sylvia around the estate and introduce her to Simon, a mysterious boy who lives alone in a cave.
But soon Bonnie and Sylvia are told that Sir Willoughby and Lady Green are dead, and they are taken by their evil caretakers to a workhouse orphange. There, they are expected to earn their keep, and spend all their time washing clothes for wealthy houses. Luckily for them, Bonnie was able to leave some clues to their whereabouts with Simon and the staff of the house.
Can the girls escape? Are Bonnie’s parents really dead? Will Simon be able to help them? As the coldest winter on record falls across the country, and the howls of wolves can be heard all over the formerly silent forests of England, Bonnie and Sylvie must survive the weather and find their way back to Willoughby Chase to save it…and themselves!
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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was originally published in 1962. It’s long been a favorite of mine, and of many other readers. It was made into a movie in 1989, and there was talk of it becoming a musical. Obviously, many people remembered it fondly! It is the first book of The Wolves Chronicles.
The Wolves Chronicles include twelve books. Bonnie and Sylvia are featured in the first one, the next few feature their friend Simon. In the second book, Simon meets a girl named Dido, and later volumes follow her adventures. The books are an Alternate History to our world, set during the reign of James III in a time where the Stuart kings reigned in England and the Hanover kings are trying to bring them down and take over the throne. (This alternate timeline divides from our world in the late 1700s.) The setting is reminiscent of books like Oliver Twist…until later in the series, where Dido’s adventures bring her to sail on whale ships and get stranded in pyramids. Because it’s an alternate history, anything can happen!
I loved these books when I read them, starting in fifth grade and ending as an adult. (The last book in the series, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, was written only five years ago, in 2005.) They’re a little tough going at some points, because you have to know a little about the world in the 1800s, but they’re well worth reading either separately or as a series.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is definitely the most approachable, with an exciting adventure, two charming heroines, and a dangerous dilemma. Try Black Hearts in Battersea next, if you enjoyed Wolves.
For older elementary and middle school readers. Try one, and let me know what you think!