Wildwood: The Wildwood Chronicles, Book I (Balzer + Bray) written by Colin Meloy with illustrations by Carson Ellis, is a story addressing every element of a such an escapade creating a realm few will want to leave.
Beginning with the very first line (duly noted in my journal of gripping first lines) readers are swept up in the whirlwind as are the two protagonists of this tale.
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.
After a typical day in Portland, Oregon, taking care of her one-year-old brother, Mac, while her parents scout out an art fair, Prue, twelve years of age, is relaxing on a park bench only to watch in amazed fear as a murder of crows kidnaps her brother. Shaking herself as if from a trance, Prue follows on her bike, the attached red wagon bouncing along like a pinball, through the streets of the St. Johns neighborhood to the bluff above the Willamette River. In despair she stares as her airborne brother disappears into The Impassible Wilderness.
At all costs her parents must not discover her brother is missing. Despite warnings from her father to never venture into that area Prue knows, she and she alone, must bring her brother home. Leaving early the next morning her journey begins but nothing could have prepared her for what she will encounter including secrets from her parents' past.
Ready to cross the railroad bridge into the wilderness, she encounters a fellow classmate Curtis, somewhat of a loner and thinker, who is determined to follow regardless of Prue's insistence he return. What the two discover is The Impassible Wilderness is another world altogether. Here what they believe to be true about the world in general must be abandoned if they are to survive.
In short order Curtis is taken captive by a band of coyote soldiers walking on two legs, appropriately if shabbily attired, and talking. Making her way to a main road Prue hails a red mail truck bound for South Wood knowing she must leave Curtis, for the time being, in what is called Wildwood. Crossing through The Avian Principality, the country populated and ruled by birds, she and her new friend, Richard, the postmaster, travel to seek an audience with the Governor-Regent; hoping for assistance in locating her brother.
Through three parts, twenty-eight chapters and 541 pages readers are held spellbound by the narrative as it flows back and forth between the perils of Prue and Curtis as each attempts to find their way in and out of danger in a world on the brink of upheaval. A host of characters, the dark-hearted Dowager Governess, commander of the coyote army bent on revenge, the bureaucratic menagerie of South Wood, a group of bandits, hearts like Robin Hood of old, prowling the woods, Owl Rex, supreme ruler of The Avian Principality, Septimus the rat, the Mystics, guardians of The Council Tree among the peaceable folk of North Wood and Prue's parents, all play their parts like notes in an intricate symphony. It's a battle of the highest order, a fight between good and evil, a fight for life.
In this debut novel, Colin Meloy, the lead singer and songwriter for the Decemberists, displays his gift as a weaver of words depicting an extraordinary world, rich and elaborate in detail, set among an ordinary world equally defined. In Prue and Curtis, as well as the secondary characters, struggles with personal values, definition of self and how one fits into the grand scheme are convincingly portrayed with vivid descriptions. The feeling of being smack-dab in the middle of the events is clearly tangible.
There was a sudden rush of wind, and she looked up in the sky and was horrified to see that the group of crows had grown twentyfold. The individual birds were now indiscernible from the mass, and the murder coalesced into a single, convulsive shape, blotting out the flat light of the afternoon sun. The shape swung and bowed in the air, and the noise of their beating wings and screeching cries became almost deafening. Prue cast about, seeing if anyone else was witnessing this bizarre event, but she was terrified to find that she was alone.
His warnings had no effect on Prue, who kept marching up the wooded slope, steadying herself on the trunks of the trees as she hiked.
"And coyotes, Prue!" continued Curtis, scrambling up the incline but stopping at the first tree of the boundary. "They'll tear you apart! There has to be another way to go!"
"There isn't, Curtis," said Prue. "My brother's in here somewhere, and I have to find him."
Curtis was shocked. "You think he's in here?" Prue was far enough into the woods now that Curtis could barely make out the red of her scarf through the bramble of trees. Before she disappeared completely from view, Curtis took a deep breath and stepped into the woods. "Okay, Prue! I'll help you find your brother!" he shouted.
At the Wildwood website linked above, a video conversation between Colin Meloy and his wife, illustrator Carson Ellis, relates their collaboration to bring this title to fruition. Ellis is well known in the world of art for her distinctive fine line drawings. Illustrations in this title were first drawn in pencil on watercolor paper prior to being recreated in ink and paint.
Readers are treated to a map of The (Impassible) Wood on the book's endpapers. According to an interview at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast this title showcases 85 illustrations; six as color plates. Intrinsic to the narrative, giving readers a window into this magical world within our world, her drawings are remarkable in how they invite the reader into the story and in their conveyance of emotion.
The combination of writing by Colin Meloy and illustrations drawn and painted by Carson Ellis in Wildwood: The Wildwood Chronicles, Book I is a true melding of vision, art and heart. I, for one, can not wait to read it again, probably when the next book in the trilogy, Under Wildwood: The Wildwood Chronicles, Book II, is to be released in September of this year. Excelling in every aspect, this fantastical adventure is a definitive title in the field of literature.