Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Finding Lost Things/Books

My day out didn't quite go as planned. I was going to a museum, but when I got there, the parking lot was full of school buses, so I fled in terror. I visited the smaller museum next door, and there were a few nice things, but it was also crowded and very, very hot. But it wasn't a waste because I got pegged for a survey on my way out, and as a reward for doing the survey (I told them about the too hot part), I got a packet of postcards, including one of my favorite painting in that museum. Meanwhile, on the way to the museum I stopped by the downtown library for a research browse, and then when I was getting the books out from under the car seat when I got home, I found a CD carrying case I thought I'd lost. I'd taken it on a trip this summer, and it had a couple of my driving mix CDs along with a couple of favorite CDs that I hadn't imported into iTunes, since I like the whole CDs. I thought I'd searched the car, and then I blamed Stan the 80s Airline Pilot Bachelor Ghost when I didn't find it in my house. Otherwise, I imagined I must have dropped it between the garage and my house, so it was lost for good. But I guess I'd been driving around with it hidden in my car since late June, and even getting the internal cleaning that comes with an oil change didn't find it. I joke about the car being my little blue box, but there may be other dimensions in there.

In addition to my research browsing, I found another book in a series I first got into when I was a kid. Since I seem to keep finding other people who are into the same things I am, are there any other fans of Joan Aiken's Wolves series around? I read the first three books backwards. I started with Nightbirds On Nantucket when I was eight or nine when my reading obsession of the day had something to do with whaling ships (I have no idea why). I felt a little like I'd fallen into the middle of something but didn't quite realize I'd picked up the third book in a series. This book was about an English girl named Dido who got rescued at sea by an American whaling ship and ended up in Nantucket, where she helped stop a plot to kill the English king. At that age, I guess I didn't know enough about history to realize that this was an alternate history. I think I was in high school when I found the second book (all my memories of reading that book involve being in the bedroom I had in high school), Black Hearts in Battersea, which remains my favorite of the whole series. This book told how Dido came to be at sea to be picked up by the whaling ship, but it was mostly the story of a 15-year-old orphan boy named Simon, who had been invited to London to study at art school by a kindly doctor who also liked to paint. Simon lodged with Dido's family, and though he found her kind of annoying, he also felt sorry for her because her family pretty much neglected her -- and he also found that her family was involved in a conspiracy to kill the king. That discovery got him and her into a lot of trouble (thus, the being lost at sea), but it also led to him finding out who his parents were, and who he really was. I loved that book enough to track down the first book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, in which Simon was a supporting character, the orphan boy who lived in the woods and helped the main characters escape from a workhouse where they'd been sent by a wicked governess. It was through helping them that he met the kindly doctor who discovered Simon's artistic talents.

I was in college when I found that there were more books, but they followed Dido's adventures in the Americas and got weird to the point of "someone check the author's medications." They went from alternate histories that were whimsical (think non-bloated, kid-friendly, lighter Dickens) but still grounded enough that it took me a while to realize they weren't just straightforward historical novels to being closer to outright fantasy, and with far more focus on the weird situations than on the characters or plot. Dido started to become something of a Mary Sue, and I was more interested in reading about what was going on with Simon (who was rather crush-worthy, to be honest), since coming into his true identity should have made him even more of a target for the bad guys, and I thought it would be interesting to see how the self-educated boy who'd been on his own since he was ten would deal with suddenly being a mover and shaker in high society. One of the books got tantalizingly close, with Dido finally returning to England and with Simon learning that and tracking her down -- on the last page, so that the book ended before their reunion.

Last week, for whatever bizarre reason, probably as the result of an odd chain of thought that could have begun with something like "what should I make for dinner?" I decided to look Joan Aiken up on Amazon and found that there was a relatively recent final book in the series that was actually about Simon. I put in a library request, got it this weekend, and was totally lost. Yesterday when I was at the downtown library I got the book that came before and was still lost. I was also upset because it seemed like the grand reunion where Dido learned that not only was he alive but he also wasn't who she'd thought he was when she knew him had taken place entirely off-stage. I was so confused with what was going on that I got out the last book I recalled from the series, one I actually own. And it turns out that was the missing link book that I'd forgotten entirely, even though I had a copy. I remember reading it, but I didn't remember the story.

It still didn't help much with filling in the gaps. For one thing, there's not a lot of catch-up help if you don't remember all the details of every event in the previous books. There's also no indication of how much time has passed so that we know how old these characters are now. I get the impression that she's now well into her teens and he's at least 20 -- at least, I would hope, given that he asks her to marry him at the end of the book where they're reunited. And that's another thing, that aspect of the relationship comes and goes out of the blue without much in between. She turns him down and says she'll just always be his friend, but then later in the next book she's utterly devastated when his life takes a turn that means she can't marry him, and there's no development in between where you feel for them not being able to be together. For one thing, they're almost never in the same scenes together in the later books, and for another, they never act like there are any of those feelings. I don't exactly expect a ton of sexual tension in middle-grade children's books, but I would expect something more than the occasional discussion about whether or not they should get married, as well as some transition between him being kind of a surrogate big brother to really being friends to being more than friends. I wrote a lot of mental fanfic when I was a teenager and all the books I had found were just following her adventures as I tried to imagine what might be going on with him, and I think I liked my versions better.

So, did anyone else follow this series and get to the end, and were you as confused as I was?

I re-read Black Hearts in Battersea over the weekend, and I still love that book to an insane degree. I need to find a keeper copy. I found a copy of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in an Oxfam shop on my last trip to England, so I guess I need to start trolling bookstores to look for this one. I'd prefer to find the edition they had in the library when I was in high school. It had a better cover and some nice art inside. The reissue I got from the library this time (and the one currently in print) is seriously ugly.

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