In Island of the Aunts Eva Ibbotson tells the story three sisters who have dedicated their lives to caring for the injured magical and non-magical sea creatures who manage to find their way to their unplotted island in the Atlantic Ocean that sits within sailing distance of London, England. Eva Ibbotson has to be one of my all-time favorite writers for children and I can't believe that I haven't reviewed one of her many books sooner. She is a remarkably versatile children's writer of both fantasy and historical fiction as well as having written for adults and teens. Born in Austria in 1925, Ibbotson immigrated to England and has lived there ever since. She began her writing career at the age of forty and has since written over twenty books, many of which are illustrated by the wonderful Kevin Hawkes.
Ibbotson has a cheerful sense of practicality in her story telling that makes her works seem timeless even though most of her books were written in the late 1980s and 1990s. Whether she is telling the legend of the Selkie of Rossay, a female seal who could become human at times, or describing a royal family living on a secret, magical island as being "entirely human and always had been. They were royal in the proper sense - not greedy, not covered in jewels, but brave and fair," as she does in The Secret of Platform 13, her straightforward style makes the reader want to believe in the existence of selkies, ghosts, trolls and mermaids. Perhaps it is this sense of practicality, along with her Roald Dahl-like insistence on karmic fairness - all bad children, adults, ghosts and magical creatures get their fair due by the end of her books, and the good are rewarded - that makes her books so enduring and appealing. Whatever it may be, I am certain that a reader who enjoys one of her books will end up reading them all.
While the idea of three sisters living on a secret island where they take care of mostly magical sea creatures is enough interesting material for a whole book alone, Ibbotson ups the ante by adding a few under-appreciated children into the mix. The sisters, Etta, Coral and Myrtle, with the help of their cook, Art, a convicted murdered who has vowed never to take another life (human or otherwise) again and their 103 year old father, the bedridden Captain Harper, have forged a rewarding, although not relaxing, life on the island. As the years pass, the sisters come to realize that they are on the verge of being too old to tend to the creatures properly, especially since the healed creatures have recently become reluctant to leave the island once they are well. Within the first few pages of the book the sisters have resolved to kidnap three children who's "parents don't know how lucky they are" to teach them the ways of the island and serve as their eventual replacements. Posing as nannies-for-hire from the Unusual Aunts agency, they get jobs tending to three different children. Etta, the oldest of the sisters is described as being "a tall, bony woman who did fifty press-ups before breakfast and had a small but not at all unpleasant mustache on her upper-lip." She is hired to accompany Minette, a ten year old girl who has been shuttled between London and Edinburgh forty-seven times in the last seven years since her parents divorced, on her train trip to visit her father. When they reach the half-way mark on the journey Etta watches as Minette changes from the bright, tacky clothes and hairstyle she boarded the train with into a plain skirt and top. Minette explains that her mother likes her to dress one way while her father prefers another and she wants to please them both. When Etta asks her how she prefers to wear her hair, the pom poms that her mother likes or the braids her father prefers, Minette replies, "I'd like it cut short." This convinces Etta that Minette is the right child to kidnap and she slips a sleeping potion into her sandwich.
Aunt Coral finds herself escorting Hubert-Henry Mountjoy to the boarding school called Greymarsh Towers where he will learn to be a "proper English Gentleman," not having been born one. Fabio's (Hubert-Humphrey's real name) father was a wastrel who stole money, gambled and fled to Brazil where he married a dancer. When he returned to England he left them behind in the rural village his wife was from. Upon his deathbed, he begged his family to bring Fabio to England and raise him in the traditional family manner (and manor.) When this proved too taxing for Fabio's grandparents, they began shipping him off to one boarding school after another. When Coral meets up with him, Fabio is determined to put an end to this business in any way he can. However, Coral takes care of that for him. Myrtle is not so lucky with her ward. Lambert, a spoiled child with access to phenomenal amounts of money, is so horrid Myrtle decides almost instantly to give up on the whole kidnapping idea and return home as soon as she finishes caring for him. She is about to pour her chloroform down the loo since she won't be needing it anymore when Lambert storms into the bathroom and grabs it out of her hand, accusing her of stealing. He takes a big whiff of it and passes out. Convinced she can't leave him conked out on the bathroom floor, Myrtle bundles him back to the island along with the other children, knowing she has made the biggest mistake of her life.
The next two hundred plus pages are taken up with Minette and Fabio's adjustment to their predicament, the feelings they struggle with as they grow to love the island, the magical sea creatures and even the Aunts alongside the constant threat of the unhappy, uncontrollable, unpredictable Lambert. The appearance of the most magical sea creature of all, the one who keeps the health of the seas harmonious and balanced coupled with the appearance of Lambert's father, who turns out to be even more self-centered and cruel than Lambert, makes for a tense climax at sea that ultimately is resolved at the Old Bailey. The ending of this book is deeply satisfying, not only for the justice that is served but for the growth of all the key characters and their love for each other, the island and its creatures that sustains them all. Although it was written in 1999, Island of the Aunts has a subtle environmental theme, much like Diana Leszczynski's excellent debut novel Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose, that will hopefully give children a new perspective on the earth's resources and a deeper appreciation of all the creatures who inhabit it.
A few of Eva Ibbotson's non-magical and magical titles readers might enjoy: