The Orphan Story Tumbles Home: A Review of Lois Lowry’s “The Willoughbys”

Everyone loves a good orphan story—or that’s what we must assume, given the popularity of them. I’ve only ever pretended to read Anne of Green Gables (I saw all 4 movies) and Heidi (I read the Classics Illustrated comic), but I just spent a year going through the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events with my ten-year-old niece. Snicket’s orphans are terrifically unfortunate and fortunately clever, and as much as he flirts with the bad ending to the orphan story—i.e., the truth about real life—the Baudelaire orphans are “like most literary orphans … wise, worthy, and self-possessed” (from The Willoughbys bibliography of orphan stories). I’ve read James and the Giant Peach with my son—brilliant writing—and working through the Narnia Series. And don’t forget, there is also Harry Potter, the deferential, quick-witted put-two-and-two-together invention of the generation.

And these are just some of the orphan stories that are the bricks and mortar of our literary foundations. In 2008, prolific and award-winning children’s author, Lois Lowry, added one more brick to the orphan lit wall—albeit a brick lain with tongue in cheek.

The Willoughbys is a self-deprecating story of an “old-fashioned family” where the rosy-cheek children are tragically orphaned and ultimately saved by an odious nanny and a melancholy philanthropist hoping to fill his empty mansion with the sound of children’s laughter again. At least, that’s the surface story. Below an old-fashioned British orphan-nanny story is a tale of boorish children who abandon the child left upon their doorstep because it is too ugly and noisy. And their parents are even worse. They don’t like their children, so abandon them to a baking, haphazard dimwit (the nanny), put their house up for sale (with the children still in it), and go on dangerous vacations throughout the world. It is a relief when they finally die. The “tragedy” of the parents’ death leads the children to try to negotiate the future with the space-chicken nanny and the unfortunate tycoon. There is also a boy who thinks he is speaking German but is really just speaking English with random German sounds. It’s actually the best part.

I think it is intriguing that Lowry is playing with the genre and creating hateful characters where the beloved ones should be. But the children are so despicable and the parents so detached that I hated the first 1/3 of the book. I’m a huge Lowry fan—do stories come much better than The Giver?—and, yet, I almost set the book aside. It was awful to read, and the story didn’t seem to suggest a hopeful or tragic future worth reading.

I did read on, however, and I’m very glad I did. The “melancholy tycoon” really is an endearing figure, and this depressed chocolate maker saves the book—both from the perspective of the reader and the perspective of the greatly humbled and transformed orphans. The Willoughbys is a redemptive book, a hopeful one. I don’t think it is a very sophisticated parody—certainly not carrying the satirical weight that Lemony Snicket’s thirteen-book series pulls off. But there are some great features. Here is an example of a great orphan genre parody conversation:

            [The Nanny] was leaning over the baby, smiling and talking in a babylike voice.

“What’s your daughter’s name, Commander?” she asked….

“Yes, her name is Ruth. But she is not my daughter. She’s my, ah, ward.”

“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 just 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?” suggest 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.”

“We are both wonderfully old-fashioned, aren’t we?…” (101-102).

Dialogue like this demonstrates while it is not a multi-layered satire, it is a playful deconstruction of a motif in children’s literature.

Like the hilarious Index of Lemon Snicket’s Unauthorized Autobiography, some of the best parts in the book are in the after-material. Her Glossary is beautiful. For example:

UNKEMPT means untidy and messy. My dictionary says it can also mean disorderly, but I know that a person can be arrested for being “drunk and disorderly” and I don’t think someone can be arrested for being unkempt. Also, I don’t think there is a word kempt—so what is that ‘un’ all about? Beats me (167).
WINSOME means charming and innocent. The victims of villains are usually winsome and often have curls and long eyelashes (168).

Lots of fun. There is also a humorous annotated Bibliography of the orphan-nanny genre of books.

The Willoughbys is not Lowry’s best book, and will not likely add to the classic orphan-nanny genre. But it is a good read, a fun poke at serious fiction, and in the end it is over too quickly.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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6 Responses to The Orphan Story Tumbles Home: A Review of Lois Lowry’s “The Willoughbys”

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