Review written by Jonathan Lavallee.
In the novel Black Maria (also published as Aunt Maria), Naomi and Chris’ father died while visiting his Aunt Maria. She lives in a place called Cranbury, and Naomi has tried her best to make sure that they never visit Aunt Maria. She has given Aunt Maria explanation after explanation as to why they can’t come until one day her mother undoes all her good work and decides to take a vacation with the kids to Aunt Maria’s house because her old helper Lavinia has gone away, and everything is just so hard. When they arrive, the children realize quickly that things are quite odd in this little town, and that their aunt is in the middle of it. The only question then becomes can they get out of it before they’re stuck inside Cranbury for the rest of their lives?
I have read quite a few of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels, and what always is amazing about them is that they really are some of the best modern faery stories ever. Even if they don’t always have faeries in them, even if they’re just about magic and the weirdness that follows, no one does the strange oddities that comes with typical faery stories like her. With this one we get a heavily segregated society in Cranbury, where Aunt Maria lords over it like a Queen Bee with her 13 Urs, as Naomi calls them. Together they seem to run the town, and wield a wide amount of magical power. However, it’s not a great and grand sorcery that you find in epic adventure tales; it’s all magic about control based around banal conversation, or the guilt for things left undone.
There is time travel, and old earth magic, and gender divides, and the best part of everything is that she never feels the need to explain absolutely everything that happens. There is danger, there is uncertainty, and the how or why aren’t all explained. Sometimes, things exist and you don’t need to know everything about them. Sometimes magic just kind of is, and it’s a feature that I think quite a few more books should have. It’s the long lost art of the single book.
Like all Diana Wynne Jones books, this book is well written with a desire to keep the story moving. It can be a little confusing and muddled when it comes to the time travel section, but that’s kind of what happens when you have a time travelling section, so it may be something you and your tween can talk and laugh about after the book is done. It’s not too heavy for your new reader tweens, and it’s a nice filler book while your hard core tween reader is waiting for the next book in that huge series to be written.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Familial guilt is the biggest thing pushing this book. It’s the guilt of family that makes Naomi’s mom decide to go visit Aunt Maria. It’s guilt that makes her stay, and the magic of guilt that makes Naomi’s mom think about moving there to help Aunt Maria. In the big final battle, between Aunt Maria with the Urs and Anthony Green, all the power comes from the guilt that can only come from family.
Chris also rebels a lot against this by being as mean as he possibly can. He’s insulting, he’s rude, and when he gets turned into a wolf he destroys the sitting room during afternoon tea. He does it because he thinks it’s the only way he can change what’s going on.
Chris and Naomi find their father, but while he’s a bit of a zombie like the other men in Cranbury at the beginning of the story, he’s also not coming back home when the story is done. The kids’ parents are not getting back together at the end, and in fact the mother marches over to make sure that she can get the divorce papers settled, which provides a good kind of finality at the end—but it might be something you want to know if your tween is dealing with a recent divorce.
Gender Roles, Gender Battles
The magic in Cranbury is split along pretty standard lines: the men have power of “the outdoors” and the women have the power of “the home.” What might have been a good idea a long, long time ago (according to one of the characters) has become this battle of the sexes where each side is trying to gain power over the other. The men don’t trust the women, and the women view the men with contempt.
If you let your younger tweens read it, there are quite a few moments that might scare them. There are some ghost moments where a room is haunted. There’s a time when Naomi goes back in time and sees someone getting magically buried under a mound of dirt. Chris gets turned into a wolf in a pretty shocking and traumatic scene. Jones isn’t afraid to put stuff in there that might be frightening for some, but your older tweens probably won’t have a problem with that.
I love Diana Wynne Jones as a novelist; she has a sense of whimsy and wonder that isn’t really matched by any other authors that I have read. That said, Black Maria isn’t one of her better books—this doesn’t make it a bad book, but doesn’t put it on par with her other works like Howl’s Moving Castle or The House of Many Ways. Don’t start your tween with this one; save it for when they want to read any book that’s written by Diana Wynne Jones.
Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones
Republished in 2000 by HarperCollins Children’s Books
Also known as Aunt Maria published in 1991 by Greenwillow Books, republished for Kindle in 2012
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