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Just an old-fashioned love song (orphans, evil parents, and short shorts intact)
on March 9, 2008
Ever pick up a book by a beloved author and find that you have to keep remembering that they wrote the book in your hands? I sure have. Sometimes a writer likes to do something a little different. To push the envelope, if you will. To write something fun and weird just for the hell of it. How often does this happen, I wonder? Will Katherine Paterson ever indulge in a superhero story involving aliens? Will E.L. Konigsburg someday pen a tale about a girl detective in the Amazon? And will Lois Lowry ever write a story that turns on its head all those pseudo-nostalgic works of children's literature that are coming out these days? Well, check off question number three (though my fingers are still crossed for numbers one and two) because from out of a clear blue sky, without any warning, comes a Lois Lowry book like nothing you've ever seen before. It's odd. It's sly. It's a smart little package that will take some thought on the readers' part. I liked it, but it's going to be a hard one to slot into a nice neat category.
As in all good old-fashioned stories, this one involves the four Willoughby children. There is Tim, the oldest, who is very bossy. Jane is the youngest and has a hard time sticking up for herself. And then there are the twins A and B. The children are essentially good kids, but their parents are the worst sorts. Negligent and wasteful, they concoct a plan to leave on vacation and sell their house while they're gone (hopefully ridding themselves of the children in the meantime). To the young Willoughbys' aid comes a nanny of remarkable talents, a rich but sad benefactor, and a host of odd characters. In the end a happy medium is reached and everyone is happy, though perhaps not in the way you might expect.
When Lemony Snicket referenced works of children's literature from the past in his own books he did so with the express purpose of showing how orphans in dire straits are more appealing when they are miserable than when they are happy. He was eventually able to mold this into larger themes touching on ideas like "What does it mean to be good?" and "To what extent are you culpable when you engage in an evil act, no matter how pure your intentions might be?" "The Willoughbys" does not stretch so far and, in fact, takes an entirely different tactic altogether. I'll admit that for the first twenty or thirty pages of this book I felt that I was reading a slightly skewed Unfortunate Event. Then, all at once, it hit me. This wasn't a Lemony Snicket knock-off! This is a book that reveals the ludicrous nature of any classic work of children's fiction. It plays with the tropes like they were taffy in the hand. Orphaned babies, malevolent parents, sad rich benefactors, it's all here. There are more hearts of gold than you can shake a fist at, but all the while you get the distinct feeling that Lowry is playing with you. She is perfectly aware of what she is doing and whether she intends to or not, she's making a mockery of those current children's novels that purposefully try to invoke the staid seriousness and style of classic literature from the past.
Lowry is also playing with you, the reader. I'm a little embarrassed at how long it took me before I realized this. I'd mark moments when bossy older brother Tom would dictate that during a chess game, "only boys can play, and the girl will serve cookies each time a pawn is captured," only later to find that the girl in question grows up to become a professor of feminist literature. Tongue in cheek doesn't even begin to describe this book. The characters, I noticed, all seemed to hunger to belong in an "old-fashioned novel" of some sort. They get their wishes, in a sense, but not without some strange mishaps along the way.
The language is the greatest lure, and right from the start you get a sense of what you are in for. Heck, when the cover says, "A novel nefariously written and ignominiously illustrated by the author," the jig is up. Lowry packs this book with adjectives up to its gills, then describes the children's terrible mother by saying, "Once she read a book but found it distasteful because it contained adjectives. Occasionally she glanced at a magazine." Clever girl. All these long words eventually come to rest in the book's Glossary. The Glossary, I should mention, is perhaps the best part of this book. I liked the rest, of course, but in this Glossary, Ms. Lowry outdoes herself. Here is a definition for the word "affable": "Affable means good-natured and friendly. There are whole groups of people who are known for being affable. Cheerleaders, for example. Or Mormon missionaries." Or here's another one. "Diabolical means extremely cruel or evil. The French word for it is diabolique. There is a French movie called Diabolique that I saw more than fifty years ago, and it is still the scariest movie I have ever seen." You will find that when it comes to the Glossary, Lowry doesn't mind showing her hand and making it clear who is speaking. Kids, I think, will like that.
This is not to say that the tone isn't off once in a while. I felt that it took a couple chapters for the book to really find its footing. At the beginning the kids deliver an uglified baby to a random mansion, and are not particularly charming when they do so. You do not warm to these characters right off the bat. Of course, as the novel progresses you grow increasingly fond of them. And about the time you see Tim "industriously putting together a model airplane out of balsa wood, being very careful not to sniff the glue," all is well and right with the world.
If I were a person prone to predictions, I might say that this is precisely the kind of book that is going to divide people. Some parents are going to enjoy this book tremendously (particularly those that make it to the Glossary at the back). However, there are just as many people out there who are going to take one swift glance at the Willoughby children's heartfelt desire for dead parents and flip out. Kids who cheer on the deaths of their parental units do not always charm the hearts and minds of readers everywhere, I am afraid. Even when the parents deserve it entirely it's still unnerving to hear a sweet six-year-old girl implore, "do let's wish for a helicopter-and-volcano disaster!" It's utterly silly but not everyone will get the joke.
That said, if you stick with this book you're bound to enjoy it. And if children can enjoy the massive hoards of pseudo-Victorian/Gothic novellas currently being churned out then they'll probably get a lot of the jokes in this book. They'll love the boy who doesn't speak German but thinks that he can ("Schlee you later, alligatorplatz!"), and the nanny that disguises herself as an Aphrodite statue to scare off potential buyers of the Willoughbys' home. It's a great book for kids and adults alike. Perhaps it is not for all takers, but those with a keen sense of humor and a taste for the bizarre will enjoy this winsome tale of the beastly, the diabolical, the irascible, and the unkempt. An auspicious departure.