This novel is terrifically entertaining, so delicious in its personalities, settings, and language that you might not notice at first how nourishing it is - packed with positive thinking and sterling character traits. Maryrose Wood takes her readers on a romp through the English governess genre, complete with unbearable rich people, a vast stately home (Ashton Place), and a dose of gothic intrigue in the form of a mysterious pack of children raised by wolves. The tone of the book is perfectly balanced - warm, lyrical, and unrelentingly funny. You might think that a gag about canine children ending every word in "awoooo," like a howl, would get old after a while. But the product-tester in my house, aged seven, fell for it every time.
One thing I appreciate is that the story is truly safe for children - even though there is a degree of suspense and mystery, there is none of the fear and darkness that lie at the heart of other popular children's books (The Spiderwick Chronicles, A Series of Unfortunate Events, even the chronicles of He Who Must Not Be Named). I couldn't detect a whiff of the cynicism that lurks in Lemony Snicket's series. The Mysterious Howling is animated by a life-affirming, confidence-building creative spirit, and would be fine for even sensitive younger readers as a read-aloud. The vocabulary is rich and the locutions have just the right amount of archaic prissiness, so that the challenge of teasing out the jokes is great fun. There are even modern-day touchstones thrown in (the meat at Ashton Place is cured in a quaint smokehouse, not "purchased in a supermarket, uninterestingly wrapped in plastic."). Some of these kid-friendly references are completely over the top, as when, in explaining the meaning of the word "hyperbole", the narrator spins off into a reference to "a painful gaseous condition called stock market bubbles." But this is part of the fun, and keeps the historical atmosphere from getting too fusty.
The backbone of the book is the character of Penelope Lumley, a young governess with a ready stock of edifying aphorisms and a steady self-confidence. She has read novels about governesses (Jane Eyre isn't mentioned, but it's playfully implied), and keeps a book of poetry handy to help her through difficult times. There are shades of Anne of Green Gables in the description of her arrival at Ashton place, and like Anne, she has a talent for making the best of every situation. She's given a dour gray dress to wear to the family Christmas party, and even though "the style of the garment was not what she herself would have chosen, yet she was forced to admit, she was eager to know what it would feel like to wear a brand-new dress, made especially for her by an expensive seamstress with a French accent." She crams lessons into every spare moment, "Was there time to teach Alexander a simple tune on the piano? Cassiopeia might be able to learn a bit of finger crocheting if they worked straight through dinner and used extra thick wool " Her achievements with the mysterious children who become her charges are miraculous, and her sang-froid in a crisis is something to cheer for. Girls are likely to appreciate Penelope as a role model, a Victorian Girl Scout leading them on. Boys are likely to enjoy the feral children and the hints of a werewolf plot, still to be unraveled. The book ends with many unanswered questions, and the expected "To Be Continued...," but I'm ready to follow governess Penelope through any number of sequels.
Recommended for ages 10-12, though it would be great for even younger children as a read-aloud. This reviewer's 7-year-old gave it 2 thumbs up!
Next in Series
The Hidden Gallery (Feb 22, 2011).
This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the January 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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