- Craig Graziano
How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries.
So begins Colin Meloy’s debut novel Wildwood, in which a girl named Prue journeys into the Impassable Wilderness, a dense maze of a forest outside her hometown of Portland, Oregon, in order to retrieve her brother--with an awkward classmate named Curtis tagging along. Due to some misfortune involving coyotes decked out in military uniforms, the two children must separately navigate this strange world where talking animals uneasily coexist with humans who have never met anyone from the outside. A revolution is about to happen, and Prue and Curtis quickly find themselves on opposite sides.
Meloy pulls influences from centuries of children’s literature, both thematically and in direct references. At one point Prue refers to Nancy Drew as the patron saint of sleuthing, and Curtis’ infatuation with the elegant, power-hungry Dowager Governess is comparable to Edmund and the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’ famous series.
Curtis joins the coyote army and helps them fight a group of bandits for the Governess...until he finds that she is the one hiding Prue's baby brother. What she intends to use the infant for is downright wicked. Meanwhile, Prue is on the run. Owl Rex, leader of most of the birds in the Impassable Wilderness (crows obviously excluded), tells her that she is in great danger.
The novel is definitely a reward for those who have already devoured many books rather than an entry-level choice for a new fan of reading. Meloy’s language is challenging, much in the way that Lemony Snicket would drop a few ten-dollar words here and there, building a reader's vocabulary. This allows Meloy to create a descriptive and abundant fantasy world that one can almost reach out and touch (Interestingly enough, Portlanders can explore the Impassable Wilderness in real life, since Meloy based his wild kingdom on the city's lush and expansive Forest Park).
Prue and Curtis still talk like regular twelve-year-olds, but it is rather electrifying to read a children’s book that has sentences like “The foyer was a cauldron of frenzied activity.” Meloy fronts the equally literary rock outfit The Decemberists, where his devout interest in polysyllabic words have been brewing for over a decade. Unsurprisingly, there are even a few heroic ballads peppered throughout the story.
The illustrations from Carson Ellis, with their bold lines and gentle tones, are lovely. Though mostly in black and white, a few of the drawings are presented on glossy paper as color plates. Ellis has designed album covers for the Decemberists, as well as illustrated The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.
People looking for something wholly original may be slightly disappointed to see how much Wildwood owes to other stories. Well-versed fans of fantasy and children’s literature will find the adventure as cozy as a cup of tea next to a roaring fireplace.