Wildwood, written by Colin Meloy and illustrated by Carson Ellis, 560 pp, RL 4

First reviewed on 10/31/11, Wildwood stands out as an instant classic, an epic American fantasy that will easily it alongside the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter on the shelves. The trilogy will end on 2/4/14 when Wildwood Imperium is published. Laika, the company that made Paranorman and Coraline, is adapting the novel into a movie!

It’s not often that I choose to read a book over 400 pages these days, but Wildwood by Colin Meloy with illustrations and maps by Carson Ellis, had enough to recommend it that I willingly dove into this 541 page tome. For those of you who don’t know, Colin Meloy is the lead singer and songwriter for the band The Decembrists. The band is known for epic ballads that often tell stories focusing on historical events and folklore. Carson Ellis, who’s artwork I’m sure you all recognize from Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society (although not the subsequent books in the series) is also well known for illustrating the covers of The Decembrists' albums. Meloy and Ellis are married and live in Portland, OR with their son Hank. In an interview with The Atlantic, the pair shared that they had been developing the setting and plot for the book over the course of the last ten years but that the story really began to take shape when their son was old enough to begin listening to and reading kid’s books and the couple started to explore kid’s literature with him. This knowledge children's literature and experience as parents is evident in every page of Wildwood.

Wildwood covers some familiar territory and stakes out some new ground as well. A few years ago I read a quote from ND Wilson (100 Cupboards trilogy) about the perception among readers that all fantasy stories are set in England. With this in mind, he set out to write a fantasy set squarely in America and American culture and he did. With Wildwood, Meloy furthers this vein, although the magical land that the characters travel to is not another world as in Wilson's books but a menacing parcel of nature right next door to home.  Meloy's imagining of the Impassable Wilderness, as it is known to those on the outside of the woods, is an actual swath of nature in Portland, Oregon called Forest Park, home to the Pittock Mansion, a beautiful old structure that serves as the capitol building and houses a nightmare of a bureaucracy in Wildwood.
Besides the authentic American setting, main character Prue McKeel is definitely a creature of the Pacific Northwest. A vegetarian, she enjoys rice milk on her granola, rides a single-speed bike (with a Radio Flyer wagon attached to it when her one year old brother Mac is in her care) stops at cafes for steamed milk and (messily) shares veggie tostadas at the taqueria with Mac. Meloy includes actual street names and Portland landmarks in his descriptions of the St John’s neighborhood where the McKeel’s live, also a change of pace for the kind of fantasy novel I usually read.

Charged with the care of Mac for the most of a grey Saturday while her parents attend a craft fair (her mother, a knitter, is working on a project of “unknown determination” that Meloy refers to as an “amoeba of yarn”) Prue and Mac end up at a playground. There Prue, possessor of a long overdue library copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds, watches helplessly as a murder of crows carries Mac away and into the Impassable Wilderness. Prue hops on her bike and follows the flock but to no use. She hurries home, pretending that she is putting her sleeping brother (in reality, a bundle of blankets that Meloy describes as a “sratum of quilted chintz”) to bed, packs a messenger bag full of supplies and tries to get some sleep. She wakes before dawn and, leaving a note to make her parents think she and Mac are out and about, rides her bike toward the Impassable Wilderness. On her way there she encounters Curtis Mehlberg, an awkward classmate who was once Prue’s friend. Unwillingly and unhappily, Prue eventually allows Curtis to follow her into the woods.. Once there, the two are almost immediately separated and embroiled in the politics of Wildwood, as the inhabitants of this secret world call it.

The Wood, which actually consists of South Wood, the Avian Principality and Wildwood, is an interesting mix of humans and talking animals and birds with a dash of magic and mysticism thrown in. Curtis finds himself captured by a military regiment made up of coyotes in uniform and led by the Dowager Governess Alexandra. Prue makes her way to The Long Road and hitches a ride on the mail truck driven by the elderly Postmaster Richard who has “two great plumes of wiry hair” for eyebrows. Richard takes her to the Pittock Mansion, seat of power for the government of South Wood. There Prue finds the Governor-Regent, the hapless brother of the deceased former Governor-Regent, husband of Alexandra. Surrounded by manipulative humans and animals, the Governor-Regent is awash in bureaucracy, forms and formalities and completely unable to help her get to Mac and unwilling to listen to Owl Rex, head of the Avian Principality, when he tells him the coyotes are massing for a battle. Menawhile, Curtis, who once considered himself a pacifist, finds himself willingly putting on a military uniform and accepting a sword as he prepares to battle the Bandits. As he accepts his sword the weapon releases a “torrent in his imagination – at that instant he was no longer Curtis Mehlberg, son of Lydia and David, resident of Portland, Oregon, comic-book fanboy, persecuted loner; he was Taran Wanderer, he was Harry Flashman.” Caught up in the world of Wildwood, Curtis and Prue find themselves on separate paths to the same destination

Much as I felt when I read Tony DiTerlizzi's The Search for WondLa, which actually has a lot in common with  Wildwood in terms of scope of story and fabulous internal illustrations that bring the magical world to life, Meloy has created a world that he really enjoys walking around in. This definitely explains the length of the book, both DiTerlizzi and Meloy could have been more economical in their story telling. But, the thing is, Wildwood is a really interesting place, as the world DiTerlizzi created, and I am happy to wander around these places and see the sights and meet the inhabitants while the story takes its time to unfold, in part because of the detailed glimpses of these realms that the artists provide. As Rachael Brown says in her interview with the couple, "Wildwood is extensively illustrated for a chapter book, with more than 75 drawings [six of which are color] and maps," a quality she hopes will become a trend. Me too! And, while I often balk at books this long, I did not feel weary or unenthusiastic about my task at any point during the reading. This book is definitely for a specific kind of reader (or listener - I think it would make a (long but) fabulous read out loud, Meloy's writing is lovely) of a certain kind of fortitude and endurance, but I think the richness of the story and the quality of the world they inhabit will be reward enough.
One final thing. Much has been written about Meloy's way with erudite and colorful vocabulary words in his lyrics and Wildwood. I certainly enjoyed this walk through the thesaurus and I don't think that Meloy's writing style, which also employs quite a few cultural references that kids won't get (besides Harry Flashman there is Jean Grey, Kurasawa and a handful of other references) and thematic nods to Robin Hood, Rapunzel, Narnia and, for me, a strong whiff of Wes Anderson's movie adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox, picking up on these things or not won't make any difference for young readers because they will be so caught up in the world, the story and the characters of Prue, Curtis and all the inhabitants of Wildwood that they meet along the way.

Above is a great book trailer that really captures the feel of Wildwood and is produced by LAIKAthe animation studio that brought us the amazing stop-motion movie, Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman's book.

Book 2, Under Wildwood, out now and Book 3, Wildwood Imperium, coming 2/4/14!


nopinkhere said...

I read the first one and thought it was okay but not great. I think maybe I had high expectations from the hype and good reviews I had read.

Tanya said...

I think these books are definitely subject to the "right time and right place" experience when reading. Also, maybe not as universal as books they have been compared to like Narnia...

Jeremy said...

The hyperbole at the top of this review surprises me -- we're not often so far apart in how we feel about a book. We didn't even find it readable, never mind putting it up with the classics. I wanted to love this one, probably because of the cover art and the Decemberists connection, and I guess there was some buzz...although no critical acclaim that I've encountered.

I haven't disliked a book this much in a long time. Random, scattered "plot", total lack of a single likeable character, glacial pacing, bizarre decision-making, no believable basis for the fantasy world, no compelling problem to solve...what a mess. My girls (9 and 11 at the time) stuck with me for about 100 pages before we all agreed that it was among the worst books we'd ever attempted. What a relief it was to abandon it!

Tanya said...

I completely respect your opinion and criticisms and that of your girls. And, despite my near ecstatic feelings for the book, I definitely see how (many) others would share your opinion. I have a history in Portland and was really excited to read a kid's book set there, especially one that I felt captured the weirdness of the city. I was also really excited to read a fantasy set squarely in America. I've actually had the chance to read an advance copy of the third book and I think that influence my touting of the books when I reposted this review. Maybe I'll tone down the adjectives a little since, thus far, I have only heard from people who did not like it...

Jeremy said...

Hmm...my "review" was a bit melodramatic. It is just a book, after all. :) Maybe if we had stuck with it, the story could have hooked us in eventually.

Tanya said...

No - I think it was a totally fair assessment. I think that this book definitely got extra attention and over-the-top hype because of the author's day job and existing fan base. I definitely appreciate your thoughts and those of "nopinkinhere" because they are fair - and especially because you were reading the book to its intended audience!