When I first read these three books back in the mid-eighties as a junior high school student, they were typical of the sort of volumes that usually entranced me, all about a nice strong girl beating the odds in a tough but slightly mystical world of the past. Re-reading the trio as an adult for the purposes of this review was a slightly different experience from the one I had roughly fifteen years ago. I felt the warm glow of re-discovering "old friends," but I was also able to make the more critical assessments of a seasoned reader.
What struck me most of all during my re-read, framed appropriately enough by the slow chugging of a train bound from San Francisco to Seattle, bringing with it echoes of Sylvia Green's journey from London to Willoughby Chase, was how well the stories have withstood the test of time. Though I'm older and much wiser, less prone to the extremes of emotion and flights of fancy that dominated my pre-teen and teenage years, I still thoroughly enjoyed these "alternate history" tales with a hint of the fantastical about them. Aiken has a knack for describing time and place with a flavor of whimsy that melds well with her tightly woven, suspenseful plots and well-developed characterizations.
In fact, unless one is very strongly opposed to the whimsical or to "what-ifs" in stories, these tales simply stand on their own merits as good yarns. They also build a very strong sense of the fictionalized time period -- late 18th/early 19th century Britain and America -- through modes of speech, mention of political events, styles of dress, and the presence of "whacky" inventions, like Lord Battersea's balloon or the long gun on Nantucket. This time in history, the start of the Industrial Revolution, is full of experimentation and exploration in literature, philosophy and science. The books, especially Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket, capture this spirit of the age rather well.
Of the three, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is perhaps the most traditionally a children's story. It bears many of the hallmarks of a fairy tale: the evil governess plotting against the good parents, children facing terrible odds and receiving assistance from a benevolent 'fairy' figure. The time period is also the most indistinct in the first volume. Readers unfamiliar with the details of English history could imagine it taking place during any part of the nineteenth century. For most young people, the time of the story will probably be relatively unimportant, as it was to me upon my first reading, especially because many of the book's issues transcend the boundaries of time and place.
Wolves explores various fears that a child might have, regardless of country or century. Most of these fears have to do with being orphaned and the terrifying challenge of facing the world alone. These challenges appear in the novel right from the beginning. Sylvia Green's parents are both long dead, and she must leave the only parent she has ever known, her poor but loving Aunt Jane, to live with her wealthy relatives: Lord and Lady Green and their daughter Bonnie, who is Sylvia's age. Sylvia's journey by train toward her new home at Willoughby Chase is fraught with all sorts of dangers: cold and hunger; the presence of a complete stranger in her car; and wolves, which break into the train! All of these are dangers from which parents are supposed to protect their children, but Sylvia must face them by herself. The author continues to examine these hovering fears as the plot progresses. Shortly after Sylvia's arrival, Bonnie's parents depart on a long sea voyage, leaving the children in the care of a distant cousin, the coldly formidable Miss Slighcarp. When their ship is reported to have sunk, the predatory Miss Slighcarp takes over Willoughby Chase and sends the children to an orphanage in the horrific industrial town of Blastburn. Placed with an unscrupulous orphanage matron, Mrs. Brisket, the children must face cold, hunger, and abusive treatment before they escape and find safety, aided first by a friend from home, a boy named Simon (himself an orphan), and then by their own wits and abilities. By empowering her child-heroes to help themselves, Aiken gives her readers the means to confront their own fears and idealizes character traits that are useful for dealing with the big bad world. While the heroes change over the course of the series, all of her heroes rely on pluck, quick wits, and determination to carry them through the twisting plots and looming dangers that surround them.
In two out of the three volumes, Aiken conveys the value of these traits by pairing a strong, somewhat willful and bold character with a retiring, dutiful and weaker character, with the bolder leading the weaker. In Wolves, the robust Bonnie leads the weaker Sylvia. In Nightbirds, the daring Dido Twite, who was portrayed as a willful but needy urchin in Black Hearts, is paired with Dutiful Penitence Casket, whose name pretty much says it all. Through the course of both stories, a balance of sorts is struck between the stronger and weaker characters. This balance results in a taming of the bolder character's rougher edges, while bringing out some derring-do in the more retiring. This character development is another facet of the stories that makes them so interesting, even for an older reader. Things change, even in the face of a happy, fairy-tale ending. The heroes grow and become more able and worthwhile human beings, while the villains, of course, get their just deserts. Additionally, while three books are all intertwined, the central characters are different in each book. Instead of following the same character through each plot, she takes subordinate characters and plots from one book and makes them central in the next, developing indirect and, hence, intriguing relationships between the books.
The plot of Black Hearts in Battersea picks up roughly where Wolves leaves off, but, instead of following Bonnie and Sylvia, it follows their friend Simon. Simon is himself an orphan who has had to make his way in the world alone. Now he is going to London. His artist friend Dr. Field has invited Simon to stay with him so that Simon can attend art school, but when Simon arrives he finds that Dr. Field has mysteriously vanished from his lodgings, which occupy the top floor of the home of the disagreeable Twite family. There, Simon meets and befriends the impertinent, neglected Dido Twite, who winds up aiding him in his quest to find his missing friend. One mystery leads to another, until finally Simon uncovers a Hanoverian plot to assassinate King James and finds out that he has been all along much more than he seemed.
Dido takes center stage in Nightbirds on Nantucket. Knocked unconscious during a disastrous adventure at sea in Black Hearts, she awakens to find that she has been rescued by the good ship Sarah Casket. The ship is an American whaler, traveling through the world's seas in search of the fabled 'pink whale.' Aboard ship, Dido makes the acquaintance of the captain's daughter Dutiful Penitence. With time and her own natural verve, Dido draws out the retiring Pen, until the two have become friends. Set ashore at last, the two girls are sent to live on the Casket farm on Nantucket, where the mysterious Aunt Tribulation holds sway over the house. The plot of the book winds tighter and tighter as all sorts of strange things are discovered: a foreigner with a funny accent marauding in the wilds around the farm, strangers sneaking into the Casket house, and more. The plot unwinds as Dido and Pen's discoveries add up to a picture of yet another Hanoverian plot, this one with even larger ramifications than the one presented in Black Hearts. Only through Dido's pluck, Pen's dedication and the interference of some key friends, are the villains able to be foiled.
Because the heroes change, what binds these three books together is the shared purpose of the villains: they are all Hanoverians, bent on overthrowing the King and putting a pretender in his place. This is where the element of fantasy comes in as Aiken explores an alternate history for England, in which King James, rather than King George, succeeds to the throne. This is a classic 'science fiction/fantasy' twist to add to the story, and one that I find myself enjoying even more as an adult, with some knowledge of English history, than I did as a pre-teen. When I was eleven, I hadn't yet studied this period of English history at school, and hence was completely unaware of the discrepancies with actual history.
After I'd finished re-reading all three books, I immediately turned to the web to find out if Aiken had ever written anything more in this alternate world and about any of the characters. I was quite surprised to find a very long list of books, some newer than others, and I am seriously considering picking up the rest of the sequence, so that I, and my future children, can enjoy these books as much as I have.
Joan Aiken successfully combines suspense, mystery, adventure, an element of fantasy, likable and utterly despicable characters, in these alternate history tales, which are sure to delight both children and older persons for many years to come.
Editor's Note: The later books in the series focus increasingly on Dido and her peculiar, sometimes sinister family. Some of the volumes share the tone of tough, ebullient whimsy of the three volumes reviewed here, while some are much darker in tone and subject matter. Aiken's talents as a horror writer are evident in them. The Stolen Lake tells of an adventure Dido has in South America as she makes her way home to England; in The Cuckoo Tree she gets back to England, only to find more mysteries with Hanoverians at the root of them; Dido and Pa reunites her with her unsavory musician father and introduces her younger half-sister, Is. The tone of the series, which had become somewhat darker in The Cuckoo Tree, becomes very dark here. Is becomes the main character of the later books, Is Underground and Cold Shoulder Road. In the first of these books (which is as far as I have read in the series), she journeys back to the industrial north of England to rescue children enslaved to work in the coal mines there; in the second book, she searches for family members in an England devastated by the disasters of the previous book. The latest book in the series, Dangerous Games, once again features Dido, who journeys overseas on a mission from the king. Dido and Pa and Is Underground are out of print in the U.S., but both are available in the UK, where Is Underground is titled simply Is. One other Aiken novel, The Whispering Mountain is set in the world of the Wolves series, but it features an entirely different set of characters, though the Hanoverians are still causing trouble in it. Unfortunately, it's not in print on either side of the Atlantic. --Christopher Cobb
Beth Kelleher is a die-hard science-fiction and fantasy fan with a passion for European history. She has a degree in French Language and Literature from Smith College but makes her living as a web designer/developer. She shares her Bay Area home with her husband and seven cats. Visit her Web site for more.