Esteemed writer Lois Lowry offers a humorous if irreverent take on old fashioned stories.
All the characters are conscious of being in an ‘old fashioned story', so they make sure to do old fashioned things. The narrative features elements from Pollyanna, Heidi, Jane Eyre, Huckleberry Finn, Anne of Green Gables, A Christmas Carol, James and the Giant Peach, Little Women, Mary Poppins and The Secret Garden.
It is highly irreverent, and may only be suitable for well read children who are temporarily tired of the classics and need to laugh. Some others may not understand the tongue-in-cheek themes discussed.
The story centres around four siblings who dislike their parents as much as their parents dislike them. Both hatch a sincere - if wildly unrealistic - plan to get rid of the other.
Around the same time a baby is left in a basket at the family's front door with a note asking them to care for her. The parents will not hear of another child, so the children leave it at the front door of a melancholy rich man who lives nearby.
The parents leave for a fateful holiday (contrived by the children), after having organised a plump, old-fashioned nanny to 'look after' the children. They have also organised that the house be sold while they are away, in the hope of getting rid of the children for good.
The melancholy rich neighbour lives in squalor in spite of his great wealth which came from his inventing a popular candy which rots children's teeth. He is sad because he believes he has lost his wife and son to an avalanche in Switzerland. After a year he gives up hope of their survival and stops opening letters sent to him from the rescue team. So when they are miraculously discovered alive 18 months later, he doesn't find out.
Believing her husband to have ignored her letters, the woman marries again and remains in Switzerland with her son.
The son runs away from his mother and new stepfather in order to go off on an old fashioned, self-realising adventure to return to his father. He reaches his journey's end, of course, after much toil and suffering.
The two stories converge when the Nanny and four children are evicted from their newly sold house, and the Nanny takes them off to the rich candy man who turns into a generous benefactor (ref. Pollyanna). Nanny and the candy man eventually marry, and all the children form one big happy family.
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