Wildwood by Colin Meloy (Illustrations by Carson Ellis)
Series: Wildwood Chronicles #1
Published by Balzer + Bray on August 30 2011
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Rating: 3/5 stars
The first book in the epic middle-grade fantasy series full of magic, wonder, and danger—nothing less than an American Narnia—from Colin Meloy, lead singer of the highly celebrated band the Decemberists, and Carson Ellis, the acclaimed illustrator of the New York Times bestselling The Mysterious Benedict Society.
I picked up Wildwood at the bookstore based solely on it’s adorable, eye-catching cover. I don’t read a lot of middle grade books, but I tend to really enjoy the ones I do read. I had high hopes for Wildwood, though when I checked it out on GR I found it had quite a few not-so-flattering reviews. I tried not to let other people’s reviews of Wildwood influence my own reading of it or ruin any enjoyment I might get out of it, as I do with every book I read reviews of.
There were some incredibly valid points made in those reviews though, primarily regarding Prue’s parents. They saddle twelve-year-old Prue with a lot of responsibility for her baby brother, Mac. It’s kind of unbelievable to me that they would send Prue out on her bike, a metal wagon attached to it carrying Mac (as opposed to an actual bike trailer in which he would be safe), for the ENTIRE DAY. They literally do not see Mac after they send him and Prue out in the morning. I understand why Meloy chose to make Prue’s parents so hapless – it was a way of giving Prue the freedom to have her adventure without dealing with parental restrictions, or killing the parents off entirely as many children’s books do – but it just didn’t work. When you learn later in the book just how badly the couple wanted children, it makes no sense that they would pretty much abandon them to their own devices.
That brings me to another annoyance I had with Wildwood, also regarding Prue’s parents. The deal that they made with Alexandra makes absolutely no sense. They were just SO STUPID. Of course you are going to have to repay the creepy witch who fulfills your deepest desire! Are you brain dead? I was also kind of offended at their apparently resigning themselves to childlessness without exhausting all of their options. It really bothers me that people who say that they are desperate for children and that they need children to be a ‘real’ family are unwilling to consider adoption, fostering, or even surrogacy! There are so many ways around infertility if you want it badly enough. I will never understand the obsession people have with having ‘their own’ biological children.
As other reviewers have brought up, there are many Narnia parallels in Wildwood. I actually found it a little bit too derivative in some parts. Not only is Wildwood, like Narnia, a world hidden within the real world that features talking animals, it also uses the whole evil witch queen trope, which I HATE. Curtis’ plot is quite similar to Edmund’s in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in that he is taken in by the villainous woman and instinctively trusts her, much to the peril of everyone around him. I actually sympathized with Alexandra/the Dowager Governess to a certain degree. Her life took a huge nose-dive and she made some crappy decisions but I really don’t think she deserved to get exiled for trying to get her son back, though her methods of doing so were a little bit… uncouth. The evil witch trope reeks of misogyny. Of course women in power become corrupt and go crazy… Apart from the whole sacrificing-Mac-to-the-ivy-and-causing-the-destruction-of-her-entire-world, I didn’t hate her. I thought that her attitude toward the coyotes and “civilizing” them was a really neat parallel to colonialism in the real world.
I feel like I’ve spent so much of this review complaining, but I really did like the book! I thought the characters were fun and interesting. They made both good and bad decisions and for the most part I found that Prue and Curtis both acted appropriately for their age, which was nice. Prue is a bit belligerent, but I think it makes sense in terms of what she went through and the way she was raised. I was a little bit off-put by Curtis toward the end of the book. I didn’t understand why he was so close to going home when he passed the bush where he was captured by the coyotes on the march to the Ancient Grove, but the not much later he made the decision not to go home with Prue. He chose to stay with the bandits (I would, too, they’re awesome and I want to marry Brendan), letting his parents believe that he’s dead. Not cool, Curtis. My favourite character by far was Brendan. He’s exactly the kind of anarchic leader I like to see – he’s modest, friendly, talented/skilful, intelligent, funny… Sigh. I liked Iphegenia as well, though that may be partially due to her awesome name.
I do wish that it had been a few hundred pages shorter. It was a tad long-winded at times and some of the nature descriptions were a little bit too self-indulgent and overblown, but for the most part the pacing was decent. It was a bit slow to start, between the inciting incident (Mac’s kidnapping) and Prue taking action to go find him. I think it would have been better suited to being around 300-350 pages as opposed to its 541 pages, but I think young me would have appreciated its’ length. I was really into long books when I was a kid – they kept me going longer!