Wildwood by Colin Meloy, illustrated by Carson Ellis
Genre: Children’s Lit, Adventure, Fantasy
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Summary: Prue McKeel’s perfectly ordinary life in Portland is taken from her in the same instant a murder of crows carries her baby brother Mac off into the Impassable Wilderness, the uninhabited forest outside the city limits. Determined to get him back, she enters the woods. Following Prue is Curtis, a school friend who is ostracized by their other classmates. Together, they discover that the forest is far from the empty wilderness they’d envisioned. There are all sorts of creatures living in the forest; from the militarized (and talking) coyotes to the Mystics living in the North Wood, the Wildwood is filled with political coups, mystical beings, and more adventure than either of Prue or Curtis bargained for.
Musicians writing books. It’s something I have to deal with in the library profession. Invariably, people want whatever crappy book the musician “wrote” and we have to oblige them. It goes for other celebrities as well (Snooki, Paris Hilton, god my brain cells are killing themselves in protest), but musicians’ books are easily the most requested. People want the glamour, the behind-the-scenes drama from their favorite artists.
Enter Colin Meloy, of The Decemberists. Unlike most musicians, he offers not a rock-and-roll memoir or a thinly veiled fictional representation of his life. His first foray into the world of fiction is a children’s novel in the great literary tradition of leaving home and going on a grand adventure. Coming from the frontman of a hyperliterate indie band who wrote a rock-opera heavily influenced by fairy tales, this really doesn’t come as a surprsie.
What did surprise me was how wonderful Wildwood is.
The basic premise of Wildwood is one that’s been used in many children’s stories throughout time (predating printed books for children, I’m sure this was part of the oral tradition as well). The children leave home for some reason (in this case to rescue a baby brother) and end up in a fantastical world in which they go on adventures and usually end up saving the day, while of course learning things about themselves along the way. Harry Potter, Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Dealing with Dragons, Coraline – the list could go on forever. And I happen to love this story arc, so I was going to be a hard fantasy/adventure nerd to please. Meloy does a stellar job of making the story new again, mainly through his interesting characters and the political situation in the Impassable Wilderness.
Prue is such a little hipster girl – she dresses better than me (and most of my friends), listens to rocksteady with her parents, and goes shopping at the open-air farmer’s market. Kids can relate to Prue’s life before the adventure, as she is thoroughly of this time. To be fair – she isn’t a disaffected shitty hipster. Far from it – she has a fierce determination to get her little brother back and will not let anything or anyone stop her. She is also too trusting at first – having grown up in a place where most adults have treated her with kindness and respect, she doesn’t know who can help her in this strange world. She learns how to navigate this more-adult place, without giving up the things that make her Prue. It’s a realistic coming-of-age story set in a magical world.
I really love the dynamic political situation Meloy crafted. There are four or five different kingdoms/principalities within the Impassable Wilderness, and they have strikingly different ways of life. The South Wood was once a bustling city, but a political coup left the people with an ineffective government run mainly by the sycophants surrounding the governor. The Wildwood is not supposed to have a ruler, but the charismatic Alexandra has mustered an army of coyotes to change all that. Prue and Curtis don’t know who to trust, as you hear all the different sides and stories. It kept me intrigued and wondering who was going to come out on top. (My favorite group was the forest bandits – they were clearly based on Socialist ideas AND they sang saucy songs. Oh – segue time!)
Meloy is a very literary songwriter – The Decemberists albums are usually narrative driven, with tons of allusions and striking images. It was an odd experience reading a fully-fleshed out novel from him, as I’m used to these really short stories that happen to be songs. And there were certain phrases throughout the book that I connected directly to a Decemberists song, which I would then start singing or humming while I was trying to read. In a way, I would be pulled out of the story world because I would start thinking about the narrative of an album or song. And I kept drawing parallels between the wicked fairy queen in “The Hazards of Love” and Alexandra in this novel. These aren’t necessarily bad things, I just had a hard time focusing because I couldn’t stop myself from referring to his past work.
But more about this work. I wanna talk writing. There is such great pacing in this novel, which is noteworthy because it’s really long – 541 pages to be exact. At first, I was a little leery not knowing what could possibly happen in that many pages. The narrative switches back and forth between Prue and Curtis, so it keeps you in a state of disequilibrium the entire time. As soon as you get really involved in what’s happening to one, you get switched. At times it was maddening, but in a great way. The book also has so many emotional tones – from really humorous (“as she walked, she breathed a quick benediction to the patron saint of sleuthing. ‘Nancy Drew,’ she whispered, ‘be with me now”) to that of simple yet beautiful truths (“we break our own hearts imposing our moral order on what is, by nature, a wide web of chaos”). And there is darkness too – something Meloy never shies away from. There is so much death in this book and – a tease. Wait until you find out the plans for Mac. Crazy shit! I deeply appreciate children’s books that don’t turn away from harder themes like wars and adults being flawed while at the same time showing determination, friendship, and hope as ways to counteract the sometimes awful reality.
Finally, Carson Ellis’ illustrations added so much to the text. There is this quality of whimsy, with not quite believable poses and proportions, that wonderfully complement the weird world of Wildwood. Instead of replicating an exact scene, Ellis was able to add more minute details and information. It helped round out the world Meloy created. Also – bonus points for cuteness because they are married!
-Beautifully written take on grand childhood adventure, modernized
– Illustrations add new depth to the story
-Pacing is really excellent, kept a long book feeling fresh
-Loved the political strife at the core of the novel, and not knowing who to believe/who was right. (Moral ambiguity in children’s stories, my fave!)
-I would often want more time with the current character, but this made me want to keep reading until I got back to the other part… so it’s a neutral maybe?
-Ended too abruptly (but this is the first book, so there must be more!)
-The baby being snatched plot reminded me of Labyrinth. Sadly, there was no David Bowie in tight pants.
Filled with both modernity and wilderness, Wildwood is a beautifully constructed tale of adventure, friendship, and growing up that will ring true for children and adults alike.