There’s nothing I like better than an author who is well aware of narrative conventions. (I am mulling over Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor, as we speak, so I am immersed in this notion.) Some authors want to reinvent the wheel; others use conventions cleverly; others — and this is one thing I love to see — recognize their debt to the conventions out loud, and play the hand as if playing a Tarot: the ingénue, the villain, the revolver, the voyage. It’s what you do with it that counts.
Lois Lowry’s terrific little book, The Willoughbys, deals itself a perfect hand for an old-fashioned children’s novel. There are four children, a baby in a basket, a benefactor, a no-nonsense nanny, some orphans, and the Swiss Alps. But none of this happens, precisely, the old-fashioned way.
The four children (Timothy, the twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B, and Jane), have terrible parents. Upon hearing “Hansel and Gretel”, the parents and the children hatch a simultaneous plan: get rid of each other. (“Shouldn’t we be orphans?” Barnaby B asked…. “Because we are like children in an old-fashioned book. And–” “Mostly they are orphans,” Jane said.) The children convince the parents to take a tour with the Reprehensible Travel Agency, and the parents, after hiring a nanny, try to sell the house from underneath the children, leaving them homeless.
The story of how the Willoughby children survive their parents’ attempt at kicking them out on the street, and how the Willoughby parents nearly survive their children’s attempt at orphaning themselves, is extremely funny and self-aware. The references to other books are so quick, you might miss some of them, though you won’t miss others:
“Oh, lovely!” said Nanny. “You are an old-fashioned family, like us. We are four worthy orphans and a no-nonsense nanny.”
“Like Mary Poppins?” suggested the man, with a pleased look of recognition.
“Not one bit like that fly-by-night woman,” Nanny said with a sniff. “It almost gives me diabetes to think of her: all those disgusting spoonfuls of sugar! None of that for me. I am simply a competent and professional nanny. And you are a — let me think –”
“Bereaved benefactor?” suggested the commander.
“Exactly. A bereaved benefactor with a ward. Like the uncle in The Secret Garden. What was his name? Oh yes: Archibald Craven.”
“Oh my, no, not one bit like that ill-tempered scoundrel of an uncle. I am simply a well-to-do widower who happened to find a baby on my doorstep.”
And so it goes. The lost are found (“It’s Peter the goat-herd,” murmured Tim in astonishment, “right out of Heidi! We can teach him to read and write, and then we’ll all smile and hug and say religious things!”), the good get their reward, the evil get their comeuppance, and it’s all quite old-fashioned. I absolutely loved it. The book contains not only an idiosyncratic glossary of some of the more complicated vocabulary, but a bibliography of “books of the past that are heavy on piteous but appealing orphans, ill-tempered and stingy relatives, magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children.” Couldn’t ask for more. Go and read it and giggle in pleasure, as I did.