Joan Aiken,
The Cuckoo Tree
(Houghton, 1971/2000)

Dido Twite returns in The Cuckoo Tree, another entry in Joan Aiken's Wolves Chronicles.

Dido and her companion, Captain Owen Hughes of the ship The Thrush, are on their way to London with an important dispatch when their carriage overturns. Hughes, already suffering a head wound, is injured further in the accident. When Dido goes for help, a mysterious group of young men direct her to Tegleaze Manor before riding off themselves.

At Tegleaze Manor, Dido finds a very strange household. The manor redefines "genteel poverty," and Lady Tegleaze is by turns eccentric and addled. Young Sir Tobit, a boy about Dido's age, is more interesting, if a bit spoiled strange. Still, Lady Tegleaze grants permission for Dido to care for the captain at Dogkennel Cottages, located on the estate.

There Dido encounters Mrs. Lubbage, a surly woman with a knack for nursing, and Mr. Firkin, a blind man who still seems to see everything that's going on. He quickly becomes Dido's ally. Dido also meets Cris, Mrs. Lubbage's ill-treated charge who takes refuge in an odd-looking yew tree known locally as the "cuckoo tree."

While the captain recovers, Dido finds herself up to her knees in a scheme to disinherit Sir Tobit, which would further yet another Hanoverian plot. This time, the Hanoverians intend to pull St. Paul's Cathedral into the Thames on the day of the new king's coronation.

Aiding Dido, Cris and Tobit are the Wineberry Men, smugglers to the nobility as well as the young men who aided Dido early on, an eccentric lord, and an elephant named Rachel. It's a rough-and-tumble ride for Dido and her friends, especially when the cathedral starts to rock and roll.

The plot is complex enough to maintain the reader's interest, yet not so convoluted that it strains credulity. Aiken evokes a creepy atmosphere with the eccentricities of the impoverished Tegleaze family, Cris's communications with an invisible friend, Aswell, and Tante Sanne, Tobit's spidery nurse from Tiburon in the West Indies, with her hallucination-providing joobie nuts.

Dido has grown into a strong and appealing character, capable, clever and courageous. The other characterizations ring true as well. Even the villains have good points and talents; they don't carry placards marked "villain."

Some series could have petered out by this time, but The Cuckoo Tree is a splendid addition to Joan Aiken's Wolves Chronicles.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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