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The Willoughbys


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Book Review

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

This ironic, dark comedy tells the story of four Willoughby children. They pride themselves on being an “old-fashioned” family, often comparing themselves to specific characters in well-known works of fiction. Twelve-year-old Timothy is mean and bossy to his siblings. Barnaby A and Barnaby B, who go by “A” and “B,” are 10-year-old twins. Jane is a timid 6-year-old, struggling to find her voice.

The Willoughby parents admittedly don’t like their children. They ignore them and can barely remember their names. Likewise, the children feel no fondness for their parents. They believe life would be better if they were “worthy and winsome” orphans, like those described in old-fashioned books.

The children find a baby on their doorstep one day. In an attached note, the destitute mother says she has chosen the Willoughbys to care for her baby because they seem like a happy, loving family. The children show their mother, who instructs them to dispose of the baby because she’s busy with her meatloaf. The children name the infant Ruth and leave her on the steps of a run-down mansion belonging to candy magnate Commander Melanoff.

Melanoff, while still wealthy, lives in squalor and sorrow. His wife, whom he never really liked, and young son were buried in an avalanche in Switzerland on vacation six years earlier. Though he still receives occasional letters from rescuers regarding the progress of their search, he stopped reading them long ago and began piling them in a corner. When he finds Ruth on his porch, Melanoff discovers he has a reason to live again. He cleans his house and joyfully throws himself into parenting the baby.

The Willoughby parents discuss how they might rid themselves of their children. At the same time, the kids ponder how they can become orphans. The kids send for brochures from the Reprehensible Travel Agency, which takes tourists to war zones and other dangerous locations. Their parents receive the pamphlet by mail and decide to book a trip for themselves. They leave the children with a nanny and put the house up for sale.

The children quickly discover Nanny is much nicer than their mother. She’s also a better cook. Whenever prospective buyers come to look at the house, the kids and Nanny take their designated hiding places and try to make the house seem haunted or unlivable. The kids receive periodic letters from their parents. Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby have survived crocodile attacks and plane crashes into volcanos, even though everyone else in the vicinity perished.

The story jumps to a small Swiss village where a woman and her son enter the post office. The meticulous postmaster, awed by the woman’s desire to help him organize the mail, falls in love. He asks her if she’s married, and she says she was. Her husband, Commander Melanoff, never answered her letters when she wrote saying she and their son had finally been unearthed from an avalanche. Swiss laws say she is now single.

Nanny and the children are skipping past the Melanoff mansion one day when they hear a giggle. Nanny goes to investigate and meets the no-longer-melancholy commander. Nanny and the commander compare each other to characters in old-fashioned stories, and Melanoff asks Nanny if she’d consider taking care of Ruth. The children say she’s their nanny and whisk her away. When they return to their house, they see it has been sold. They decide that like any wise characters in old-fashioned books, they must make a plan B.

The Willoughby parents arrive at the small Swiss village on the day the postmaster and the former Mrs. Melanoff are wed. Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby decide to climb an alp on which even the most experienced climbers have died. Shortly thereafter, the Willoughby children get a letter indicating their wish has come true. Their parents are frozen solid on an alp, and they are now orphans. Nanny offers Melanoff her nanny services in return for his letting them all move into the mansion. Before long, they become much like a happy family. Melanoff even feels inspired to try making candy again.

Back in Switzerland, Melanoff’s son is unhappy. He can’t speak the language and doesn’t like his meticulous mother and stepfather. When his mother suggests he leave to seek his fortune, like boys often do in old-fashioned books, he seizes the moment. A candy wrapper jogs his memory of his father’s whereabouts, and he decides to journey thousands of miles to find him.

As the residents of the mansion have dinner one night, Jane mentions she saw one of the Swiss letters. She reads it aloud, and Melanoff realizes his son is alive. Moments later, the shaggy boy arrives at the front door, after his trip across the globe. It turns out his name is also Barnaby, like the twins. The overjoyed Melanoff marries Nanny, lets the boys legally change their names and often takes his new family to Switzerland for vacations. He and his son visit with the boy’s mother while the Willoughby children salute the frozen figures of their parents before drinking cocoa. Tim grows up and marries Ruth. The other children have successful careers.

The book ends with a humorous glossary that defines the many big, old-fashioned words the author has sprinkled throughout the text.

Christian Beliefs

The Willoughby parents write that their pilot was killed, but it didn’t matter because he was Presbyterian. Nanny takes offense because she is Presbyterian.

Other Belief Systems

The glossary in the back of the book includes the word “affable” and says it describes people like cheerleaders or Mormon missionaries. The glossary also says “auspicious” is when a person sees a lot of good omens suggesting something will happen.

Authority Roles

The Willoughby parents admittedly dislike their children and can’t remember the kids’ names. They dispassionately discuss how to get rid of their offspring. The former Mrs. Melanoff also shows little concern for her son’s well-being. She sends him off on a hike to find his way in the world. Melanoff and Nanny genuinely care for the children. They notice, compliment, play with and create a home for them.

Profanity & Violence

Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby mention via a letter that they have survived crocodile attacks and plane crashes into volcanoes, even though everyone else in the vicinity perishes. The Willoughby parents are frozen to death.

Sexual Content

Commander Melanoff thinks if he weren’t such a decent man, he would affectionately pat Nanny’s behind when she bends over.

Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments

Netflix is creating an animated film version of this book.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.