Bonnie's parents are leaving in order to try and strengthen her mother, who is frail and ill, and have found a shirt-tail relative to act as Bonnie's governess while they are gone. This personage strides into the book nasty and parsimonious and prune-faced. She's a puppy kicker of the first degree. Shortly after her arrival, Bonnie's cousin Sylvia arrives as well, having come by train and braved the terrifying, ravening wolves that live and prey on things near Willoughby Chase. With her is a man who has been struck unconscious on the train. As in the best gothic traditions, he will turn out to be not as he appeared on the train and will add to the menace of horrible Miss Slighcarp. Need I mention that somehow the terrible Miss Slighcarp arrived without having to face the awfully frightening wolves?
Once Bonnie's parents have gone, things go from bad to worse for forthright Bonnie and shy Sylvia. All the servants, except for those who are untrustworthy anyway, are turned off. The lowly governess takes to wearing Lady Willoughby's clothing. And finally, Miss Slighcarp informs them that Bonnie's parents have died when their ship went down, sending them off to a hideous school that is more a children's workhouse than anything resembling a school. The girls must escape to survive. Relying on the kindness of the goose boy and former servants, they manage to evade capture and head off to foil the dastardly plans of Miss Slighcarp and her compatriots in crime.
I love that there is no Disney Dead Mom syndrome here. Yes, Bonnie's parents must disappear for the girls to have their scary adventure but we aren't faced with the plucky orphan syndrome that pervades so much of children's literature and film these days. Aiken has created a delightfully gothic world that won't be too terrifying for children but she maintains the important conventions like having the weather and the natural world reflect the plot. Her wolves are scary and the visual of the girls slogging through an initially grey, winter world on the way to London and redemption in the colorful spring pays homage to the best of gothic writing. Bonnie and Sylvia are charming characters, if Sylvia's tendency to weakness and all around goodness is a tad irritating. The secondary characters are not intrusive but help move the little girls along in their quest, providing the warmth that counteracts the nastiness of the adults ostensibly in charge. I can't say how this would hold up as a re-read but as a first read, even as an adult, it's a delight. Good is rewarded and evil punished but there's no heavy handed moralizing here. I do think middle grade readers will eat it up, given half a chance and adults who appreciate middle grade books will find much to appreciate as well.