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The Willoughbys declares itself from the outset to be an old-fashioned story with an old-fashioned plot. The Willoughby children (Tim aged twelve, the twins Barnaby A and Barnaby B aged ten and Jane aged just six and a half) are largely ignored by their parents. Their father, ‘an impatient and irascible man’, is oblivious to pretty well everything, so when a baby is left on the Willoughbys’ doorstep, he strides over it on his way to work at the bank. The children decide that, on balance, they don’t want the foundling either on account of its ‘beastliness’. So they wheelbarrow basket and baby round to a forbidding mansion occupied by a lonely widower who has made a million from inventing and manufacturing chocolates; like ‘Scrooge from another old-fashioned story, tragic events in his past had caused him to lose interest in life’. The children leave the baby at his door, along with a note to say that if there’s a reward going (as there would be in any decent story), it should be theirs.
The Willoughbys is a sustained delight, charged with a knowing humour shared between author and reader – the sense of Lois Lowry thoroughly enjoying herself is part of the book’s pleasure. This might well be a young reader’s first taste of gentle literary parody. Some remarkable goings-on in the Swiss Alps would have astounded Heidi; and the Willoughbys acquire a resourceful Nanny who could teach Mary Poppins a thing or three. Apart from the baby in the basket, a long-lost son (inevitably also called Barnaby) turns up; and even the Willoughbys are happily orphaned and thus eligible for adoption by the rejuvenated millionaire who, of course, has the good sense to marry Nanny. For this story must have an old-fashioned Happy Ending for those who deserve one; those who don’t, end up frozen into a Swiss mountainside for eternity.
The closing pages include a bibliography of ‘books of the past that are heavy on piteous but appealing orphans, ill-tempered and stingy relatives’, which are directly or distantly echoed in the novel. The account of Little Women concludes, ‘Beth is saintly and dies’; while in The Secret Garden, ‘Together the three children take up gardening and thrive’. There is also an idiosyncratic glossary to explain some of the longer words found in the text. The note on ‘irascible’ confides, ‘I myself had a very irascible third-grade teacher and it made for a miserable year’; and the entry for ‘winsome’ observes, ‘The victims of villains are usually winsome and often have curls and long eyelashes’.