This is the first of a series by Maryrose Wood. Beth read these to our kids a few years ago, and I’m repeating them now that my two youngest are old enough to enjoy it. I expect that any parent with several children can relate to the story of a young governess tasked with forming gradeschool children who have spent the past few years being raised by wolves.
Along with being playful and well-written, this book is a good old-fashioned moral tale in the spirit of Jane Eyre and Bleak House. Maybe a little romantic, but I’ve always been a sucker for that type of thing. Anyway, the irreverent humor of the wolf-raised children takes the edge off of the sentimentality.
Like Lemony Snicket, Wood likes to introduce a new vocabulary word or expression by using it in the course of a sentence and then taking a lengthy rabbit-chasing aside to explain what it means. I find her asides more charming than’s Snicket’s, which are usually snarky and can be a bit grating.
Looking at the big picture, three great moral themes from the book jump out at me:
Beauty. When Penelope Lumley first meets the three “Incorrigible” children, they are huddled in a barn under blankets, howling at her for intruding. What does Penelope do? She recites to them a passage from her favorite chapter book, and by the end of the passage the children are curled up at her feet. As “Lumawoo” gets them cleaned up and starts their education, beauty takes center stage. Some of their work involves the nuts and bolts of education, of course. But at the same time, she starts reading them Longfellow’s The Wreck of the Hesperus, which is far above their heads. But beautiful language is beautiful language, and by the end of the book the kids make the poem their own in a delightful way.
Pluck. Penelope’s defining trait is the habit of rolling with the punches, what people these days call resiliency, but what her character knows as pluck. This is one of those virtues that can be misused by comfortable people to tell the less fortunate they should just gut through their troubles, but it remains a great virtue nonetheless. Most people’s lives require a good bit of rolling with the punches.
Social Consciousness. Like a lot of Dickens, the book celebrates classical virtues and social justice at the same time. Penelope’s empathy for those around her contrasts with “nobles” in the story who treat people like objects and never trouble to wonder what it might be like to be someone else. Penelope’s strength in the face of every storm contrasts with the cowardice of Lady Constance who weathers the onslaught of life only by hiding behind her money and servants, and Lord Ashton who avoids real life by spending all his time with the boys at “the club.”
Aside from its message, the book is a fun mystery and coming-of-age story as well. It was a delight to read aloud, and the series of six books means I have a reliably fun and literary chapter to read every night for months to come.