by Joan Aiken
In the last account of Dido’s adventures, The Cuckoo Tree, Dido runs into her father. A staunch Hanoverian (in Aiken’s AU, the Scottish James III, and then his son, Richard, are on the throne; an underground political group desires to bring the German Hanoverian to rule over Britain instead, and most of the plots in the Wolves Chronicles are based on a Hanoverian plot of some kind), Mr. Twite is also a passionate musician. The rest of Dido’s family (except for her older sister who eloped in Black Hearts in Battersea), was killed in an explosion (a literal backfire of a Hanoverian plan), so Dido is surprised to find her father alive and well, traveling under various assumed names to avoid arrest.
Well, Mr. Twite kidnaps his own daughter and spirits her away to London to be used as a pawn in the latest political scheme. Per usual, the part of the book that I enjoyed was Dido herself. She has developed, through the course of these books, from a rather aggravating urchin in Black Hearts to an intelligent, practical, humorous young woman. But the rest of the book was just as confusing and verging-on-disturbing as the other more recent books in the series.
First off, we find that Dido’s father is living with a prostitute, with whom he had apparently been having an affair for many years. The way that it is presented seemed, to me, a bit out of place in children’s book. (Please keep in mind that many of my criticisms for these books are because they are published as children’s books; I think that a great deal of the material is very dark and almost morbid – not the type of material I’d like to hand any child, really.) The other regular occupant of the household is Isadora, or Is, who is constantly referred to by Twite and his mistress as “the Slut.” (I was relieved to find, however, that common British slang uses “slut” as a slovenly woman, not necessarily one who is sexually promiscuous, which is how the word is most often used here in the States; Is seemed far too young for the latter definition to apply with any kind of appropriateness.) Is is abused, neglected, starved, and beaten, all quite callously. Dido alone cares, but in many ways even Is herself has given up on life, and it’s a bit creepy.
Throughout the story, several people are rather brutally knocked off, and in the end, even Dido’s own father is killed pretty gruesomely, as he is pursued and beaten by a horde of angry street children (who have discovered that he was willing to let Dido die for the sake of his own preservation), and left, unconscious, to be eaten by the wolves that are invading London.
A stone flew, and hit him in the mouth.
“Come, come now!” said Mr. Twite, wiping away mud, and possibly a tooth. …
Another stone flew, and then several more. Mr. Twite began to run. He raced into the park, followed by the whole crowd of children. They yelled and flung objects – anything they could pick up – eggs, oranges, shoes. Mr. Twite ran desperately across the park toward the river; but the storm of stones, shoes, and other articles became fiercer and fiercer. At last, under it, he crumpled and fell to the ground.
At the sight of his fall, the children halted. The looked at him doubtfully from a distance. He still stirred feebly and moaned.
… “We’d best leave him be. He ain’t much hurt – I don’t think. He’ll pick hisself up, soon as we’re gone. We don’t want the beaks arter us, saying we done him in. We never. He’s just a bit dazed, like.”
Everyone agreed. Without wasting a moment, the crowd of lollpoops [street children] took themselves off, disappearing speedily along alleys and narrow streets … in five minutes the park was empty, except for Mr. Twite.
But the wolves had come across the river … they found Mr. Twite lying among the missiles that had stunned him and they quite soon finished off what the children had begun.
Not exactly lighthearted fun. That whole scene was quite abrupt, too. I had no expectations of Mr. Twite’s sudden demise, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, as just that morning he had heartlessly witnessed the complete destruction of the house of his mistress and seemed to display only relief that the burden of keeping her happy could be shed.
There were other things that seemed strangely unexplained, like how the lead villain apparently was being kept alive somehow by Twite’s music, so when Twite didn’t show up to play, he died.
And before their aghast eyes the margrave [that’s the villain] began to shrink, to shrivel and dwindle; the lips pulled back from the teeth, the jaw fell open, the eyes glazed and filmed; witha final rattling gasp, which sounded like a wild ironic cackle, the patient writhed from head to foot and lay lifeless on his bed. And not merely lifeless: from the appearance, the chill, and the dreadful dank odor of the body, anyone just arriving in the room would conclude that it had been dead for several days, if not weeks.
Wait, what? SHE NEVER EXPLAINS WHY. Was he some kind of zombie, kept alive by the magical music of Twite? There was never a sense of otherwordliness about him until his death, and that’s all we get, this strange implication that he’d been walking dead for a long time, and then we just move on, still confused and clueless. (Or at least I was. Maybe I’m completely dense and bad at these books?)
Overall, I can see these books appealing to and being enjoyed by some. And Wolves of Willoughby Chase is still one of my childhood favorites. But these later adventures in the Wolves Chronicles have just been a bit too dark, morbid, and confusing for my personal tastes. Dido and Pa was a Paperback Swap find, and I do believe that it will be posted there again soon. 2/5.