The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place #1: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood (Balzer and Bray, 2010)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
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When I am lonely or sad, I often find solace in a strange little book called Horseradish, a collection of quotes gathered from Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. The quotes are parsed out by category – for example, “Family,” “Travel,” and “An Overall Feeling of Doom that One Cannot Ever Escape No Matter What One Does” – and because Daniel Handler authored them they each contain just the right balance of absurdity and poignancy, so that after skimming the book you don’t feel better about your circumstances, but you do feel like you aren’t the only sad and lonely person in the world.
Maryrose Wood’s series The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place was pitched to me as reminiscent of Daniel Handler’s children’s literature, which is why I ordered the first two books of the series before I’d even read the plot. I was brimming with hope that I would crack open this book and experience something like the joy and wonder I felt at age eight when I first discovered Lemony Snicket. But when I started reading The Mysterious Howling at 3am at an airport in Chicago, I realized that I was wrong to put Maryrose Wood in a Lemony Snicket-shaped box (which, for the record, would be an incredibly mysterious and shadowy container). While her style has the same beautiful, looping and self-aware witticism that made Handler famous, Wood has created a beautiful world within a world in this series that is entirely her own.
Wood’s series centers around Penelope Lumley, a plucky young graduate of the Swanburne School for Poor Bright Females. Penelope begins the book on a carriage headed toward Ashton Place, where Lord and Lady Ashton have put out a call for a governess for three children supposedly found in the woods during a hunting trip. Penelope instantly connects with the three orphaned children, who the Ashton’s believe were raised by wolves, and over the course of the first book she trains them to read and speak English and eventually manages to keep them from chasing squirrels up trees every time they venture outside the house. And if three wolfish children aren’t enough to drive the plot, the series is also centered on a peculiar mystery involving a shifty coachman, a holiday ball, and an unexplainable howling sound coming from the attic. I’m a sucker for a good mystery, but at the end of the day it’s the artistry of the book’s construction that won me over – Wood beautifully balances voice and action, and her characters are both unique and relatable, developed just to the extent that you can easily find yourself and the people in your life inside them.
In terms of winning moments, I was immediately brought back to Lemony Snicket at the beginning of the tenth chapter of The Mysterious Howling, when Wood lets her voice shine through. She describes preparation for Lady Ashton’s holiday ball as “busy as a beehive” and then wanders off on a stunningly witty and informative Snicketish tangent:
“(It is not necessary to actually set foot inside of a beehive to confirm this, by the way. They are too small and too full of bees for the in-person tours to be truly convenient. But there are alternatives: One could peer inside using some sort of periscope-like magnifying device, for example. Or one could simply accept that beehives are busy and get on with it. This second option is called ‘suspending one’s disbelief,’ and it is by far the easiest row to hoe, now and at other times, too).”
But beyond those moments, when for a few paragraphs I traveled back to frank absurdity of Lemony Snicket’s novels, I loved the fullness of Wood’s narrative. Penelope reads the children classic poetry like Longfellow and Keats, and often references a favorite series of heartwarming novels about the triumphs and struggles of a pony named Rainbow that Wood created especially for the novel, and which is the tool Penelope uses wins over the three children and the cook, Mrs. Clarke. The series is also littered with aphorisms stolen from Agatha Swanburne, the founder of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, some of which are so perfect they deserve to be cross-stitched on pillows and sold world-wide. (Take for instance, the quote: “If it were easy to resist, it would not be called chocolate cake.”)
Ultimately, the first book in the series was beautiful because it was fresh and light and self-aware, and because it offers a critique of the adult world that good YA manages with comedy and grace. The plot of the book may be absurd, but the emotions are real – and at the end of the day this book was a reminder of the way that a fictional place can reflect our own feelings and experiences in the real world, where the rules don’t always make sense and the priorities of those around us feel skewed or inadequate. If Maryrose Wood is writing a critique of adulthood, it is a critique that offers kindness and empathy as a more promising alternative to showmanship and materialism, which is a critique that I will always stand behind. This book has all the makings of the next best-selling young adult series, and Penelope Lumley is one of the strongest and most relatable female heroines I’ve read in years.
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