colin meloy’s Wildwood

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Wildwood by Colin Meloy w/ illustrations by Carson Ellis
Balzer+Bray, 2011
Hardcover, 541 pages (w/ full-color plates).
Prue McKeel’s life is ordinary. At least until her baby brother is abducted by a murder of crows. And then things get really weird.
You see, on every map of Portland, Oregon, there is a big splotch of green on the edge of the city labeled “I.W.” This stands for “Impassable Wilderness.” No one’s ever gone in — or at least returned to tell of it.
And this is where the crows take her brother.
So begins an adventure that will take Prue and her friend Curtis deep into the Impassable Wilderness. There they uncover a secret world in the midst of violent upheaval, a world full of warring creatures, peaceable mystics, and powerful figures with the darkest intentions. And what begins as a rescue mission becomes something much bigger as the two friends find themselves entwined in a struggle for the very freedom of this wilderness.
A wilderness the locals call Wildwood.
Wildwood is a spellbinding tale full of wonder, danger, and magic that juxtaposes the thrill of a secret world and modern city life. Original and fresh yet steeped in classic fantasy, this is a novel that could have only come from the imagination of Colin Meloy, celebrated for his inventive and fantastic storytelling as the lead singer of the Decemberists. With dozens of intricate and beautiful illustrations by award-winning artist Carson Ellis, Wildwood is truly a new classic for the twenty-first century. ~Publisher’s Comments
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It was unfair of me to suppose that a songwriter’s novel would be lyrical or prone to poetic fancies. Colin Meloy proves that he needn’t be contained to singular voices or talents. His Wildwood is rather staid. It is very cleanly written. No waxing, a little waning, and not an awkward sentence anywhere. He transports the reader and translates Portland culture without melodrama, without romanticism (well, maybe some). Yet, it isn’t technical writing either. Comparisons with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia have more to do with the way the story is told, than even in the passing into another fantastical world with an evil witch, a struggle for power, ecological threats, and children who need to find they are courageous and resourceful. Wildwood feels like a classic story, and one which, coincidentally, should become a classic, especially for those in the North West, and the Hipster crowd.
<possible spoilers hereafter>
There is a lot of praise for Wildwood, and not without merit, but Publisher’s Weekly eloquently touches on something with which I, too, had some difficulty:
“Meloy, the lead singer of the band the Decemberists, delves into middle-grade fiction with a story that pairs classic adventure novel tropes with cool, disaffected prose. The book opens as 12-year-old Prue McKeel loses her baby brother to a murder of crows, and sets off to rescue him from the Impassable Wilderness, a strange country alongside Portland, Ore., (where the actual Forest Park lies). Her classmate Curtis tags along, and the two are soon separated. Prue takes refuge with the postmaster in his delivery van, while Curtis is captured, then suddenly made an officer in an army of talking coyotes led by the beautiful and intimidating Dowager Governess. It becomes apparent that Prue and Curtis have landed on opposite sides in a war — and neither side may be right. Without a good side to cheer for (disappointments and betrayals abound), the story lacks a strong emotional center, and its preoccupations with bureaucracy, protocol, and gray-shaded moral dilemmas, coupled with the book’s length, make this slow going. Ellis’s spot art, not all seen by PW, is characteristically crisp and formal, further lending the story a detached quality. Ages 8 — 12. (Sept.)” Publishers Weekly
I was drawn into the story rather quickly, easily charmed having lived/schooled in and around Portland, Oregon. And Meloy is a whiz with the setting. I could practically taste the damp, hear the bicycle wheels on the pavement. It was when Prue and Curtis become separated and the story is drawn into the political struggles of the Wildwood that I found myself prone to distractions.
“The [Pittock] Mansion has, for years now, been looking for ways to curtail the freedoms of the Avians. It worries me that this may give them even more reason.”
“Why?” asked Prue.
The owl shrugged. “Distrust. Intolerance. Fear. They dislike our ways.”
This was baffling to Prue. The birds she’d met so far in this strange place seemed very kind and accommodating.
[…]
“Gone are the days when the Mansion could be seen as a place of wise counsel and just governance. It is now a den of political opportunists and would-be despots, each grabbing desperately for every possible shard of power.” (180)
The current state of political affairs in the the four regions of the Impassable Wilderness drives most if not all of the plot and Meloy takes his time with it. C.S. Lewis (for me) drags in the same ways–the traveling, the setting, the actions that seems to occur in real time. Meloy doesn’t choose sides until the story forces his hand–many many pages in. In a way, this is brilliant: who doesn’t like the guessing game of whether the Dowager Governess really is scary or whether she is just misunderstood. But the awe inspired in the Reader is in the idea of this other society living and breathing in this impenetrable wilderness right next door. The “cool, disaffected prose” do not produce this sense. So when the idea has settled in, the awe dissipates and you are drawn into a long fable, a typical adventure. We’ve dealt with the White Witch, Edmond, Prince Caspian, and talking animals before. Granted, this isn’t England and there have yet to be an inclusion of mythical creature.
The “preoccupations” lose the chase with which you are drawn into the adventure, where is the baby and what do the crows want with him? What does he to do with everything else going on? I must’ve put the book down too often, but I couldn’t puzzle it out. Then there were the points I didn’t care, my mind caught in the intrigue of something else, like the mystery of why Prue could come through the impenetrable barrier. Nothing was going to unfold fast enough, I realized early on. And it doesn’t.
What Meloy does for the Reader to repent for the slow unfolding is to hold pace and interest by quickly and continually alternating between Prue’s adventures and Curtis’. Neat little segues are provided, little cliff-hangers to keep the Reader eager to return to a story line. This is a very very smart move. The Reader doesn’t have to wait for the next chapter, just a small run of paragraphs. And when Curtis is fairly stationary, Prue is constantly moving, going, seeing.
Prue is the capable heroine. She is independent and has a good moral center. There is less tension expended on her than Curtis who undergoes the greatest amount of change, and who is subject to the most self-deprecating kind of humor. Meloy makes use of Curtis’ abilities and then makes him something more–someone more daring and potential is surely in the offing. Meloy plays with the Reader a bit. It is lovely. Curtis is a wonderful surprise, always.
Other characters find dimension quite well. The most impassioned parts of the read, the most persuased toward a political position, is in meeting and becoming acquainted with the Wildwood bandits, most especially the heroic figure of the Bandit King. The bandits provide the trademark Decemberist Shanty. Meloy captures the dialog; personalities are fitted with a dialect, the most rhythmic infusion into the novel.
I mentioned Narnia, but there are other wonderful stories that come to mind; though nothing so much as to rob Wildwood of being its own on the whole. The clockwork boy (Frankenstein, necromancy) was very sad–too bad that complicated urge for compassion doesn’t hold; I suppose it really coudn’t.  I especially like Meloy’s take on the Rapunzel-story and the moral dilemma there (330+, 380-1). It is very creative and works into the plot beautifully.
Wildwood inspires the Reader, especially the young, to consider the real possibility of real magical places still thriving just beyond the pavement. Wildwood suggests that the magic that fuels fantastical adventure can be still found, in the wild places, in nature. There is a call to preserve the possibility, and to participate in a bit of wildness of your own.
“I saw in Wildwood, this forsaken country, a model for a new world. An opportunity to return to those long-forgotten values that are programmed deep within us, the draw of the wild. I thought if I were able to corral and focus this powerful law of nature, I could bring to the Wood a sort of order out of disorder and govern the land as it was always intended to be governed.” (133)
“You Outsiders,” said another bandit, on who had remained silent during all the invective. ‘You’re always looking for a way to conquer and despoil things that ain’t by rights yours, huh? I heard about what you do. […] I heard you about ruined your own country, nearly ran it into the ground poisoning your rivers and paving over your wild lands and such.” (238)
There is a lot of commentary on protecting the earth and her inhabitants. With regards to the Robin Hood-like bandits, Edward Abbey comes to mind: in that part of protecting our wilderness is to protect our wildness. Wilderness provides a space of refuge for the anarchists or other unpopular political/religious beliefs. With regards to Prue over her younger sibling and the resignation of the parents, I think about how much of our earth and resource we sacrifice for our immediate kin, our immediate needs, to the sacrifice and detriment of our future generations–our near-future generations.
“A satisfying blend of fantasy, adventure story, eco-fable and political satire with broad appeal; especially recommended for preteen boys.” Kirkus Reviews
I agree that the greatest pleasure in the read will likely be found with the male audience. The battle scenes, Curtis’ interests and angsts. Curtis moves from the fantasy of being the strong and brave and capable hero in the face of a beautiful woman, heady drink, bloody battle, and the rescue and protection of the vulnerable, to the becoming of these things. He will no longer be seen as the coddled boy with comic book themed bed-sheets, the sibling of only sisters, awkward and gawky, and will disappear into the wild and into the wildness therein.
Colin Meloy evidences ambition in this thoroughly written fantasy adventure. For lover’s of Portland, Wildwood is marvelously steeped in the region’s cultural concerns and responses. It is exciting when the rare North Western piece of literature is taken up by those outside. When the Easterners, or even Midwesterners, enter Wildwood they begin to see and taste Portland (and her greater environs), but when they enter the “Impassable Wood,” they become privy to so much more. Perhaps the absence of lyricism and waxing heat is so as to not mistake Wildwood and its environs and concerns as an impenetrable Fantasy, but as a probable and possible place.
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a note : on Carson Ellis’ contributions to Wildwood. She has a recognizable style and voice of her own, fans of her work will be glad to see so many illustrations, especially the number of color plates in the novel. Both the b/w illustrations and the color plates (inserted full pages) illustrate moments in the story, images Meloy competently breathes life into with text, so the enhancement via their presence is other.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Ah, excellent. I’m glad to see Ellis’ accompanying plates. I love it when novels have nice illustrations amid the pages.

    Thanks for the review. I’m curious to see how “preachy” the enviro-stuff is. Most of the times that I’ve ran across eco-awareness messages, I’ve been rather turned off, not due to the message, but due to the inept ability of the messenger. I doubt Meloy will disappoint.

  2. L says:

    he won’t disappoint. an opinion is evident, but the above quote is as “preachy” as it gets.

    yes, Wildwood doesn’t skimp on Ellis illustrations, and they are all nicely spaced throughout.

    looking forward to what you think. Was telling Sean about the experience, the staidness of the story, very classic modes of telling, and the cleanliness, and he thought it sounded very Decemberist Meloy. Knows what he wants, works to perfect it, focused on his Art, i.e. The Crane Wife III.

  3. Kailana says:

    I have this on my TBR pile. I am looking forward to reading it!

  4. Carl V. says:

    Yes, I am loving those illustrations in a major way. Will definitely be checking out more of her work.

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