Caspar, Johnny, and Gwinny are none too happy with their mother having remarried, to a man they think of as the Ogre. The Ogre’s sons, Douglas and Malcolm, aren’t very happy with it either. Then the Ogre buys Johnny and Malcolm chemistry sets, and wacky hijinks ensue when some of the chemicals turn out to be magic.
This, like Witch’s Business (aka Wilkins’ Tooth), is in the camp of “books I read once and never went back to.” It’s not hard to see why. This isn’t a bad novel; it may bear a strong resemblance to the stories in Stopping for a Spell, but it’s far better than any of those, probably because it’s longer and therefore has more time to develop its ideas. But there’s no deeper, more fantastical layer — not even the hint of one you get in Witch’s Business. The chemicals that drive the plot never get explained, and their source vanishes at the end of the book, without ever having made more than a cameo appearance in the tale. So basically, this feels more like standard-issue children’s fantasy, less like Diana Wynne Jones.
There are a few characteristic touches, though, discussion of which I’ll put behind the cut.
I don’t remember my reaction to this book when I first read it — which was, I believe, when I was in college — but this time I was sympathetic to the Ogre from the beginning. The kids are pretty bratty, and he isn’t that terrible; the only thing he does for most of the book that really appalls me is when he hits the kids. But of course I’m reading this in 2011, and the book was written in 1974. I don’t know how widespread corporal punishment remained in Britain back then (the reference to caning in school implies it hadn’t gone out of style, unless that’s meant to be anachronistic), but I suspect it wasn’t nearly as much of a villain flag then as it comes across now. The only other bit where I don’t like him is when he lies to the kids about where Sally has gone, which is soon acknowledged as his bad attempt to deal with the fact that he doesn’t know. So when Gwinny has her heart-to-heart with the Ogre, it doesn’t come as any kind of surprise to me: it’s just a relief, that everybody’s going to stop being so rude to one another.
Some of that might be a pov thing. We’re mostly in Caspar’s head, and so we can see his lack of consideration for other people. We aren’t ever in the Ogre’s head, so we don’t know until he says it that he had completely given up on trying to understand the kids — including, apparently, his own. But mostly I think it’s that I’ve read DWJ books with truly bad parents; since I have them for contrast, I immediately recognize the Ogre’s attempts at kindness for what they are.
I wish she had spelled out the chemical names rather than abbreviating them; it would have made the Chekhov’s Latin a bit easier to spot, but would kid readers be able to recognize that? (I doubt most of them would now, anyway. Dunno about in 1974.) And the “Greek” of the Hell’s Angels is cute, though the mashing together of words makes it harder to decipher than it otherwise would have been. That felt very DWJ to me. But man, I wish there had been more backstory to the chemicals. As it stands, they’re just a plot device, and even more obviously so at the end, when “Peter Fillus” helps the family buy a bigger house.
I think I’ll try to finish out the month with Eight Days of Luke, which is the favorite I haven’t gotten to yet, and another of her early books. Then I’ll probably skip down the timeline for The Merlin Conspiracy, which has been requested. Onward!