Caspar, Johnny and Gwinny are not at all happy with their two new stepbrothers, Douglas and Malcolm, and even less happy with their new stepfather, invariably referred to as the Ogre. The two sets of kids are forced to band together when two chemistry sets arrive, with rows of mysterious chemicals that cause unexpected results–from enabling flight to causing people to switch bodies to bringing inanimate objects (like toffee bars!) to life.
I feel like I’ve read many books (from Edward Eager to Edith Nesbit) about kids dealing with magical chaos, but it’s one of those tropes that doesn’t get old. These kids felt like archetypal fantasy children, good kids with some flaws. None emerged really strongly for me, but all five are distinct and effective within the story. They go through some nice growth as well, particularly in their understanding towards each other.
The magic is highly amusing and entertaining, with a grand variety of mishaps. The living, growing (and breeding) toffee bars are my favorite.
There’s a lot that’s good here, and the book is overall very fun. But I did have a big problem–and that was with the Ogre. (Spoilers here, you have been warned…) Throughout the book, the Ogre is loud, angry, ominous and forbidding, apparently with no liking or understanding at all for children. But then occasionally, for no clear reason, he’ll do something nice (like gifting them with the chemistry sets). This made me suspect that DWJ intended to reform him by the end–and she does. Although, it’s less about his change than about the kids changing their understanding of him. Even with the hints along the way…it just didn’t work for me.
The trouble is, the hints felt less like signs of a complex character, and made him feel more inconsistent than layered. The bigger trouble is that, though the kids ultimately decide he’s not really so bad–he is. He doesn’t just yell–he’s nasty, mean and genuinely hurtful. That would be bad enough, but at one point he gets angry enough to hit two of the boys. The scene is off-stage, so it’s not clear if “hitting” means a mild clout, a serious beating or something in between. All we do hear is “Johnny found out he had been right to postpone being hit by the Ogre. It was an exceedingly unpleasant experience.” And then Malcolm is ill for the next day. After that, you can’t convince me that the Ogre’s “bark was so much worse than his bite” (a direct quote).
For the record, I really, really like characters with gruff exteriors and hearts of gold. And I like happy endings, even improbably neat ones. But this…just did not work for me. I feel like the ultimate message was, “be understanding of the verbally and physically abusive stepfather and maybe he’s not really so bad.” That may be putting it harshly, but I feel it’s a valid interpretation!
It’s really too bad, because 80% of this book is a delightful fantasy. But then the conclusion of the last couple of chapters leaves me feeling rather troubled. I tell myself it’s from a different time, and standards on child-rearing were different, and it’s true that if this was an Edith Nesbit book from the early 1900s I’d give it a pass…but was 1974 really that long ago?
I don’t know if I recommend this one or not. It’s complicated. But I know some of you are Diana Wynne Jones fans, so I’m very curious on whether you’ve read this one–and what you think!
Author’s Site: http://www.dianawynnejones.com/
Buy it here: The Ogre Downstairs