Nightbirds on Nantucket (The Wolves Chronicles, #3)
When I find a book that's a bit older and rather obscure, but intensely delightful, I make it a personal goal to convince as many people as possible to read it. One such book is The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. I must reread this one myself, as I am in desperate need of cheering up. And what better way to cheer oneself up than by reading a classic orphans-menaced-by-wicked-relatives tale that involves an alternate British royal history and packs of hungry, hungry wolves?
I know, I can't think of anything else, either!
The lovely sequel to Wolves, Black Hearts in Battersea, introduces the resourceful waif Dido Twite. Dido is a delight, alternately suspicious and generous, and speaks with a jaunty accent spread thickly over her words like clotted cream. At the end of Black Hearts, Dido is believed lost at sea--but take heart! A whaling ship picked her up in the North Sea, comatose and mostly frozen. But Dido lives, and when she awakens, she's very far from home. This is where the third book, Nightbirds on Nantucket, begins.
The good ship Sarah Casket has a hearty crew and a Puritan captain obsessed with chasing a pink whale. Being one of those "everything in its place, and a place for everything" sort of chaps, Captain Casket does not approve of Dido on his ship. Small female subjects of the Bonny King James III do not belong aboard whalers. Thankfully, Dido is not pressed into service removing blubber from the poor whales (a process described in detail; if you haven't the stomach for it, skip that chapter). Instead, the Captain tasks her with befriending his reclusive daughter Dutiful Penitence Casket, who barricaded herself inside the ship's pantry after her mother's death, and has since been subsisting on plum jelly.
Although she is stubborn, Dido is not hard-hearted. Gently, she coaxes Dutiful Penitence (hereafter referred to as "Pen" by both Dido and myself, for rather obvious reasons) from her cabinet of preserves. Pen, however, is afraid of everything. She is afraid of dying (which is a legitimate fear), of her father (again, I cannot blame her), of the ocean (unfortunate, since the captain has them dashing after whales both pinkened and unpinkened), but most of all of her Aunt Tribulation. Actually, it's more Aunt Tribulation's dog, who once looked askance at Pen and imbued her with a mortal terror of the mongrel and its mistress.
Dido promises her new friend that she will save her from Tribulation, but alas! As soon as Captain Casket puts into port in Nantucket, he sails off again. Men. Left alone on land, Pen and Dido have no choice but to return to the Casket farm, where Aunt Tribulation has taken up residence. Aunt Tribulation is rather a New World version of the heartless governess Miss Slighcarp, whom we met in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. She's ruthless, heartless, greedy, and cunning. When the girls first arrive at the house, she pronounces Pen to be a "pasty-faced little bag of bones" and gives them a truly Dickensian list of chores.
The two imprisoned girls try desperately to escape the clutches of Aunt Tribulation, but she has eyes everywhere, and always foils their plans. Out on the marshes of Nantucket, however, they find a measure of peace. They also rescue a rather peculiar man with a Russo-Italian-German accent who blunders into a pit of quicksand whilst tracking the elusive night birds of Nantucket. Professor Breadno is quite kind, if a bit scatterbrained and obsessed with the giant gun that he's built. After literally running into the aforementioned gun in the forest, Dido realizes that they have stumbled onto a plot to kill the King! Clearly, there is a cabal of Hanoverians hiding out on the island! They're using the sweet but dangerously smart doctor to build a gun so big that it will fire its projectile clear across the Atlantic Ocean and directly into Buckingham Palace. The King won't even see it coming.
But regicide isn't the only threat posed by the Hanoverians and their big gun. Dido and Pen discover that when the gun is fired, the recoil from the blast will drive Nantucket clear across Chesapeake Bay and into the clutches of ... New York! Good heavens! The taciturn denizens of Nantucket want absolutely nothing to do with their wild, hard-partying neighbors across the bay. They certainly do NOT wish to become EVEN CLOSER NEIGHBORS.
Dido and Pen's madcap adventures come to a head when Captain Casket returns once again, followed by Rosie the Whale. As it turns out, as a young boy, wee Casket rescued a beached whale of a peculiar roseate hue. The whale imprinted upon him, and they have been chasing each other through the seas ever since, as she longs to be reunited with her Puritan man mama. When he reappears on the cliffs, she is overjoyed, and gladly assists her land-family by taking the tow-rope attached to the giant kingkiller gun firmly in fluke and dragging it into the ocean.
The real Aunt Tribulation arrives, announces she prefers to be called "Topsy," and proves to be such a kind-hearted creature that Dido finally feels comfortable leaving Pen on her own and striking out back across the Atlantic. We leave Dido in the care of a British frigate, which will end up sailing to further adventures in The Stolen Lake.