Their father, an impatient and irascible man, went to work at a bank each day, carrying a briefcase and an umbrella even if it was not raining. Their mother, who was indolent and ill-tempered, did not go to work. Wearing a pearl necklace, she grudgingly prepared the meals. Once she read a book but found it distasteful because it contained adjectives. Occasionally she glanced at a magazine.
I’ve noticed The Willoughbys at the library several times, and this week I finally picked it up. The only Lois Lowry I’ve read before is The Giver, an excellent YA dystopian novel that raises many important questions. Somehow from its cover, this book promised a different flavor. And boy does it deliver.
In its own way, The Willoughbys is also a dystopia. It’s the realm of sentimental children’s literature (mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century), where the stock characters and plot ingredients remain but without their standard saccharine outcomes. Complete with orphans, wicked parents, a rich benefactor, and siblings on an adventure, the plot incorporates some favorite features of these “old fashioned stories” (as the narrator and characters frequently call them). Just in case you are in danger of missing the connections, The Willoughbys is full of allusions to other books, and even includes a bibliography of them at the end, along with a special glossary of terms to help you navigate the fictional landscape.
I enjoyed the dark humor here more than I expected to. There is plenty of snarkiness but no real mean-spiritedness toward the books targeted for mockery (fear not, Green Gables and Secret Garden fans!), and the deadpan narrative makes everything funny rather than disturbing. It’s similar to The Giver, where use of language is key to the social commentary (substituting “sanitized” for “killed,” for example, or “release” rather than “death”). But instead of a society that has created its own illusions, in The Willoughbys it’s a literary genre.
To be honest, I didn’t think that much about all that while I was reading, though. I just enjoyed the story. The satirical touches hit my funny bone again and again. My sixth grader started reading it last night, and given that she was still snickering after lights out, I think it’s safe to say that it’s having the same effect on her! I have a feeling terms and phrases from this story will be entering our family discourse — “6 points lowered for that!” or “Remember, think only about elephants!” Read it for yourself and you’ll see what I’m talking about…