[15 December 2011]
Colin Meloy is well known as the primary songwriter and lead singer for indie-rock stalwarts The Decemberists, aka The House Band for English Majors. His reedy voice tends to provoke strong reactions both positive and negative, but even his most ardent detractors have to admit that the man can turn a phrase when he wants to. “From all atop the parapets blow a multitude of coronets / melodies rhapsodical and fair” isn’t the kind of lyric that graces a typical song from, say, The Black Keys. Or MGMT. Or even Bon Iver.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a fellow like Meloy would try his hand at fiction one day. After all, many of his best songs are narratives, and some of them are substantial and convoluted—“The Mariner’s Revenge Song” from Picaresue, the three-part “Crane Wife” suite from the album of the same name, and the album-long epic The Hazards of Love all come to mind. Whatever one may think of these songs, there’s an undeniable narrative drive behind them all, not to mention a sense of characters in conflict and an urge to see their various difficulties resolved (if not always happily).
Wildwood is the first of a proposed series of young-adult books written by Meloy, with illustrations by Carson Ellis, who also provides much of the visual art for The Decemberists’ albums and merchandise. Ellis’s contributions are slight—six color plates and occasional black-and-white illustrations, including line drawings for each chapter heading—but they lend a certain flair to the project, and help to visually tie together the book’s 500-plus pages. It’s a handsome package all around.
The story is engaging enough, with many of Meloy’s preoccupations from his musical narratives on display. There’s a magical forest populated by both human beings and talking animals, a couple of strong but innocent protagonists, and a vaguely 19th-century worldview permeating everything. There are evil queens, and benevolent priestesses who communicate with the trees, and a clear though relatively subtle strain of eco-awareness that nestles comfortably in the story’s larger environment of Portland, Oregon.
The story focuses on two children, Prue and Curtis, who stray from the comforting confines of Portland into the Impassable Wilderness just across the river. They’ve been warned against doing this—all children have—but Prue has no choice, as her baby brother has been kidnapped by a gang of crows, and she has to get them back. Curtis follows, for reasons of his own.
Soon enough the two are separated, Curtis falling in with a mob of barely-civilized coyote soldiers armed with muskets, and Prue making friends with the King of the Birds, a large owl who lends a sympathetic ear to her plight. Alas, sympathy notwithstanding, things soon go south for Prue, and she finds herself alone and stranded in the woods. Curtis meanwhile suffers indignities of his own, not the least of which involves imprisonment in a hanging birdcage-type affair buried deep underground.
It’s not exactly a spoiler to suggest that these obstacles are only temporary, but the manner of their resolution is fun and entertaining, so there’s no need to go into detail. Meloy knows who he is writing for so there’s nothing too grotesque or disturbing here, none of the brutality and rape and abused children that mark a surprising number of Decemberists songs. Suspense and action there is in plenty, but scenes of graphic violence are held at bay.
There’s also an unwillingness to dumb down the vocabulary in deference to perceived notion of what a young teenager might or might not understand. Meloy’s sentences are peppered with fairly arcane words, which serves to keep the sentences popping and the story flowing along.
Meloy trusts that the inventiveness of the scenes will keep the kids reading: “A warthog in a three-piece green corduroy suit was holding court in the middle landing of the staircase; a small retinue of observers huddled around him as he spoke, his cloven thumbs tucked into the armholes of his waistcoat. A pair of black-tailed deer, the ties on their oxford shirts matching their tails, argued vehemently by the marble bust of an important-looking man; a squirrel stood on the edge of the bust’s plinth, nodding.”
The book isn’t perfect, and there are times when Meloy’s obvious love of the rich descriptive phrase could have been reined in, the better to keep the story chugging along. But this is a cavil. Much of the fun of stories like these comes from the richness of the world being described, and detours large and small contribute to this. (See also the last four sprawling installments in the Harry Potter saga.)
Readers fond of young-adult style adventures are likely to enjoy this story a good deal, and folks searching for something for their bookish kids to read could do a lot worse. Decemberists fans are likely to be curious, as well. The happy news is that there is enough skill and fun on display here to satisfy just about everyone.