I am always struck most by the female protagonist. Both of my children’s books and a fantasy book I am working on, The Curse of Téarian, feature young women as the driving forces of personality in the narrative. In Harry Potter, it is Hermione who most has my sympathy. While Charles Wallace in A Wrinkle in Time is the forlorn mystic—the genius—it is Meg’s frustrated determination that grabs me. I prefer Lucy to any of the Pevensies in Narnia, Arha is far stronger than Ged in the Earthsea Cycle, and Violet is my favourite Baudelaire. And Lyra Belacqua of The Golden Compass trilogy (His Dark Materials) is my absolute favourite young woman in literature.
It is a great pleasure, then, to meet Prue.
Prue is the protagonist in Wildwood, an urban-threshold fantasy set along the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. While Prue is impetuous and a worrier and fiercely independent, she is also stubbornly loyal to a fault. So when her baby brother is snatched from her hands by a murder of crows and taken into The Impassible Wilderness she is determined to bring him back to her parents.
Prue sets her mind toward the lone journey into The Impassible Wilderness, only to discover that she is being tracked by the annoyingly present Curtis, a rather unfortunate child from her class who simply will not leave her be. Prue and her unwanted co-adventurer, Curtis, soon discover that The Impassible Wilderness is actually the magical country of Wildwood. They enter into a fairy country of divided kingdoms, civil war, Sherwood Forest-styled banditry, and a villainess bent upon control of all of Wildwood. Following their individual narratives in Wildwood, both Prue and Curtis discover how they are intricately linked to the impossible world of Wildwood, and both must use their core strengths—and face their very present weaknesses—as they stand up to The Dowager Governess, the Jadis of this lost wood.
The Wildwood Chronicles—a sequel is complete and a third book is in the works—are born out of the husband and wife collaboration of singer-songwriter Colin Meloy and artist Carson Ellis. I have to say this is one of the most beautifully produced books for older children that I have encountered in some time—if I can use the idea of “production” to capture it. The writing is tight, descriptive, and imaginative—less poetic than Meloy’s songwriting for The Decemberists, but equally evocative. Meloy’s greatest strength is his sense of place. I have never been to Portland, and as I was not conceived within its trees I cannot visit The Wood itself. Yet I was thoroughly placed within the speculative geography of Prue’s adventure.
This sense of place is then enhanced by Ellis’ artwork. Her 85 illustrations capture not only the details of the story and the imaginative layers of the Wood, but also evoke the voice of narrative itself. Meloy describes the process of collaborating with his wife:
“Being able to write something and then seeing it being drawn and sort of brought to life in a way that maybe I hadn’t even expected to—it’s really exciting.”
Besides the well placed pen-and-ink drawings and several excellent maps, we are treated to six full colour plates, paintings that I would often turn back to and explore visually as the story developed further. They left me hungry for more.
A notable feature of Wildwood is that its world is post-theistic. There is no Emperor Beyond the Sea as there is in Narnia, or invisible hand of Providence as there is in Middle Earth. Deep in the country’s history there was worship of unnamed gods, and the decayed language of those now-dead worshippers remains in the conversation of Southwood, but the days of that belief are far gone. The strongest religious motif is druidic, rather than theistic, and captures the West Coast sensibility of Wildwood. There is in North Wood a great tree whose roots spread beneath the entirety of The Wood. A community of gifted citizens gather to understand the tree, and these intuitive folk have a deeper connection to the relationship of all things than most people. In desperation, Prue sues the council for aid, which begins to turn the hand of advantage against the Dowager Governess, and also reveals some of Prue’s own unnamed gifts. I suspect that the second book, Under Wildwood, will play out this theme even more.
I think we will also see the hapless Curtis emerge as an even more important figure in the sequel. In Prue’s first adventure, he has a knack for forest warfare, and is suspiciously lucky. I love this Curtis character, and hope to get under the skin of his mysterious and peculiar talents.
Time will tell whether Wildwood becomes a classic or passes on as one of the great books of a generation. But Prue is a strong character. She could learn from Lucy’s intuitive sensitivity and Lyra’s creatively deceptive wit, but she stands on her own as a protagonist I won’t soon forget.