Wildwood by Colin Meloy is the Decemberists singer and songwriter’s first foray into children’s fantasy. Meloy explores the fantastical story of a forest that borders Portland, Oregon, which has been given the name the Impassable Wilderness. Beautifully illustrated by Meloy’s wife, Carson Ellis (who also provided the art for The Mysterious Benedict Society), Wildwood belongs standing shoulder to shoulder with such fantasy series as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
The story begins with eleven-year-old Prue McKeel setting out on an everyday adventure with her baby brother, Mac. She pulls him in a Radio Flyer wagon hitched to the back of her bike, and takes the reader on a geographical journey through Portland. When she stops at the park to take a break, a murder of crows swoop down on her brother and carry him off into the sky. When she watches them take him towards the Impassable Wilderness, a forested area that she knows not to go into, she understands that she is going to have to go and find him and bring him back.
The Impassable Wilderness, however, is not just a forest. Instead, it contains a magical host of characters, animal and human alike, who have been living there for years. There is a particular magic that keeps the residents of Portland out, and keeps the inhabitants of the Wilderness safe inside. Teaming up with Curtis, an exuberant boy from school (and my favorite character from the book), Prue ventures in to save her brother.
Curtis and Prue are separated from one another not long after they entire the Wilderness. They are startled by a host of coyote soldiers who call themselves by Russian names, and Curtis gets taken while Prue manages to escape. Their separation from one another allows them to cover even more territory than they would be able to explore together in the pages of the book, providing the reader a more clear and comprehensive picture of the Impassable Wilderness and what it holds inside. Curtis spends time battling with the coyotes, donning their uniform and fighting for their cause (even if he’s not exactly sure what that cause it). Prue is taken by a mailman to the South Wood, where she experiences bureaucracy taken to another level, a corrupt government, and a sorrow-filled history. When she asks for help from the government she finds it a complicated route. As the narrator notes,“[Prue’s] only struggle with bureaucracy was when she’d been on the waiting list for a particularly popular book at the library.” The government of the South Wood is something much different.
Prue and Curtis become more and more entangled with the politics and culture of Wildwood and find their way into its complicated history and relationship with the human world. Mac sits at the center of the story, the person Prue is searching for, and the key to the personal history of her family that she could never have known. Wildwood is a lyrical book and even includes several songs sung by a band of bandits. It is reminiscent of The Hobbit in that way, and allows the reader to fully interact with the world. I would recommend following up with the sequel, Under Wildwood.