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The story begins in contemporary London, where Mig and Chris live with their mother Betty Laker. Their father has left with another woman, then disappeared in an automobile accident on the way to visit his Aunt Maria. Betty Laker, responding to Aunt Maria's plea to spend Easter vacation with her in distant Cranbury-on-Sea, takes Mig and Chris and goes to the shore. On arriving, Mig and Chris discover a magical, dreary community ruled mysteriously by Aunt Maria. The townswomen are her co-conspirators, the men behave like zombies, and the children appear to be clone-like orphans.

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Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

Aunt Maria communicates adventure, suspense, and message through a variety of literary techniques. Mig, the narrator, is a likeable character with whom the reader can easily identify, and her down-to-earth reactions to mysterious happenings and magic spells lend them credibility. Jones also makes fantastic events seem more believable by beginning the action of the novel in a realistic setting, the way C. S. Lewis does in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Lewis Carroll does in Alice in Wonderland. So effectively does Jones use the technique that the narrative moves smoothly from the Laker home to Aunt Maria's strange domain.

The attention Jones pays to the everyday details of domestic life, such as setting the table or pouring tea, serves the same purpose of enhancing believability. Careful description is an important feature of the novel. Jones uses words that help to convey an ominous, bleak mood in Cranbury-on-Sea, thus reinforcing the theme of dangerous, boring conformity. For example, Aunt Maria's house is dark, the town and seafront deserted and windswept.

Jones also employs numbers and colors suggestively, to heighten the sense of mystery and suspense. Aunt Maria's address is number 13, for example. Elaine, her lieutenant, wears black to signify the death of personality. By contrast Antony Green, whose name, apparel, and magical box are assigned the color of growing things, represents hope for the development of individuality and freedom.

The emotional atmosphere in Cranbury- on-Sea often is evoked through figures of speech, as when Mig refers to "feeling you are in a sort of bubble." The image conveys a sense of entrapment in a closed and stifling community. Also, she sees Aunt Maria as a queen bee, who has everyone in the town hovering about her. Magic—like that represented by the green box—is another imaginative element used to good effect by Jones to convey profound concepts concerning individuals, relationships, and power. In one instance Antony Green's manipulation of the magical box greatly affects Aunt Maria's physical size, thus altering also her dictatorial powers.

Although the tone is serious and the ideas sufficiently complex to challenge the reader, the entertainment value of the novel remains high. Jones weaves a fine story, filled with surprises, humor, and deft touches of realism. For example, Mig is transformed not into a grown cat, like her mother, but a fluffy kitten which promptly proceeds to lick itself. Here the humor balances the characters' urgent need to take action in order to save persons gripped by Aunt Maria's magic.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

Jones treats topics in Aunt Maria that some readers might find troublesome, but she does so with sensitivity. She proceeds on the realistic basis that many of today's young people face broken homes, difficult relationships, and news stories of struggles for human rights. Domestic quarrels launch the story, and the parents have engaged in extramarital relationships. The approach is non-judgmental, however, and the stress is on the qualities that enable Mig and Chris to cope.

The parental breakup leads to contact with Aunt Maria. On one level, the novel concerns how far family members should go in caring for demanding elderly relatives. In another vein, some readers may question Chris's sarcastic talk and behavior toward adults. Yet again, the intent is not to preach but to enlighten. On another level—and this is the far more intriguing one—Aunt Maria rules an entire society gone awry. Here Jones reveals her stand against systems of dictatorship, a point of view with which few readers would disagree. "People should not manage people," Mig concludes—within the home or without.

A point of concern might be what Jones has to say about the male-female relationship, which in the novel is integral to the question of power. The novel is rich in complexities that arise from dialogue including references to "woman's work" and women's brains being "obtuse." Mig deplores the fact that in town "the women are winning," but the message is not anti-woman. Mig is a strong female character who rejects the notion that "having ideas is not women's work." Throughout the novel, the intent is to present ideas and develop understanding. Ultimately Antony Green brings spiritual freedom equally to every man and every woman.

He also admits that the "stuff" he disseminates, which thwarts traditional ways and conventions, is "not easy to describe." The comment is thought provoking, as are many aspects of this novel. The point Jones makes is the need for granting individuality free play, and this is true of her inclusion of black clone-like orphans among the rest. There is no racism here, but rather the perception of color as a quality of individuality. The emphasis is on the necessity for social diversity, and the association between men and women that will end domination by either gender.

Readers concerned about violence should not find Aunt Maria objectionable. They should be aware, however, that the novel generates considerable suspense, and that main characters are placed in very real danger. The novel's humorous touches do not entirely lighten the serious tone or the rare grim and frightening episode. In the case of the wolf hunt, a killing does in fact occur and the wolf involved is a transformed human being. However, the killing is discussed and not depicted, involves a peripheral character, and enhances the novel's central theme.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 187

Cart, Michael. Review. The New York Times Book Review (April 19, 1992): 16. The reviewer perceptively covers important aspects of the novel's themes.

Jones, Diana Wynne. In Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 12. Edited by Laurie Collier. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994: 101-108. The entry is valuable for a detailed biography of Jones in the context of critical commentary on selected titles including Aunt Maria, with listings of publications, awards, and honors, and a bibliography of review sources.

——. In Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators. Edited by Sally Holmes Holtze. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1983: 166-167. In a statement for young readers, Jones candidly relates her childhood struggles to her later writing.

——. In Something About the Author. Vol. 70. Edited by Donna Olendorf and Diane Telgen. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993: 115-118. The entry is useful as an abbreviated biographical and critical overview, with listings of Jones's publications and awards and honors.

——. Speaking for Ourselves, Too. Edited by Donald R. Gallo. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993: 106-108. In a statement for young adults, Jones depicts her unhappy childhood in relation to her efforts to publish good books for young adults.

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