"Spit Spot:" The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
Lois Lowry, two-time Newbery author, creator of one of the last century's most memorably funny girl characters, Anastasia Krupnik (Anastasia), author of notable historical fiction in Number the Stars, and the deeply philosophical dystopic science fiction Newbery winner The Giver, has proven that she has a few new tricks up her literary sleeve. In her newest book, The Willoughbys, Lowry rolls out her self-illustrated parody of the "old-fashioned" orphan tale genre in an original bit of writing which has been both controversial and lauded by readers and reviewers. What you get here is a marriage of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Lemony Snicket, with a dash of Dahl, a bit of Bronte, a taste of Travers, and a dab of Dickens.
"Once upon a time there was a family named Willoughby," Lowry begins, "an old-fashioned type of family with four children, Timothy, twelve, Barnaby A and Barnaby B, identical twins, and Jane, six and one half. Their lives proceeded in exactly the way lives proceed in old fashioned stories."
Well, in the way of the worst of such tales, perhaps. To begin, the Willoughbys senior are made irritable by the very existence of their children.
"It's disgusting the way children today all want their own sweaters," observes Mrs. Willoughby (having suggested that her offspring share the one sweater she has knitted).
"Do you like our children?" she asks her husband.
"No. I never have, especially that tall one-- what's-his-name."
"I have a plan. It's thoroughly despicable."
"Lovely," said his wife.
Meanwhile the children are pursuing their own plan. "We should be orphans. I suppose we should do away with our parents somehow," said Timothy.
Fate steps in as the parents book a world tour with the Reprehensible Travel Agency and leave the children with the last of many "odious nannies" they try to hire, departing instantly with orders to an agency to sell the house from under their offspring while they are gone. "Well," said Timothy, "while we're getting rid of them, they are getting rid of us. Despicable!"
But the "orphans" land on their feet in true potboiler style. When a baby is left on their doorstep, they name it Ruth, deftly re-depositing her on the doorstep of Commander Melancoff, a lonely but irascible candy tycoon, who adopts the infant, christening her "Baby Ruth" (leaving the Willoughby orphans "Ruth-less" just as they had planned), and takes in the Willoughbys and their cheery and culinarily gifted nanny. By the ending all are prepared to live happily ever after--that is, as soon as the author can come up with the proper old-fashioned ending. Their joy is marred only by the failure of the launch of Melancoff's new nougat, nut, and chocolate confection, unfortunately named the "Little Ruthie," thereby narrowly missing a historic brand name in the candy bar pantheon.
"What is there to say at the end of an old-fashioned story?" Lowry asks.
Well, for one, she appends a sly bibliography of classic orphan tales with humorous annotations and adds a glossary with wry definitions, viz,
Tycoon: Tycoon means somebody who has amassed great wealth and power in business. Usually a tycoon is a man, for some reason. Maybe Oprah Winfrey is a tycooness.
The critics have had quite a tussle coming to terms with this new direction from a gifted author whom they thought a known quantity. "Sly humor and a certain deadpan zaniness give literary conventions an ironic twist, with hilarious results," says Booklist in a starred review; "A lollipop of witty metafiction...cunningly crocheted into a hilarious doily of drollery," chortles Horn Book. As for its several detractors, reviewing the book in Publishers Weekly the master of unfortunate (orphanly) events concludes by saying
There are those who will find that this novel pales in comparison to Ms. Lowry's more straight-faced efforts, such as The Giver. Such people are invited to take tea with the Bobbsey Twins. Ms. Lowry and I will be across town downing something stronger mixed by Anastasia Krupnik, whom one suspects of sneaking sips of Ms. Lowry's bewitching brew.