Wildwood

By Colin Meloy; ill. by Carson Ellis

Balzer + Bray, 2011

560 pages

Not long after I graduated from college, my employer assigned me a business trip to Portland, Oregon. I was feeling city-starved, and Portland was high on the national radar as a hip urban area, so I was excited to go. I stayed in a newly restored historic hotel in the heart of downtown Portland and drove out to the client’s suburban office each day. In the evenings, I came back to downtown and prowled around the quirky bookshops and other establishments dotting the neighborhood around my hotel.

Everywhere I went, the scenery was breathtaking, and nature seemed always on the verge of reclaiming civilization. Masses of tall old firs crowded against the highways. Mountains loomed on the not-too-distant horizon. When it was time for me to drive to the airport, the client sent me on a shortcut through residential neighborhoods where front-yard gardens spilled riotously everywhere. Roses that were literally as big as saucers encroached on the sidewalk.

It was the first time I remember feeling like I could just wander off into the wilderness and lose myself. I understood why early white settlers and nature tourists wrote in such awed tones about the Pacific Northwest’s scale and beauty.

When I first saw Colin Meloy’s Wildwood at my local library, Carson Ellis’s delicate but fierce cover illustrations caught my eye. But I took the book home because of that long-ago business trip and the way it dovetailed with Meloy’s premise: that a fantastic world of witches, talking animals, and bandits might exist in a feral forest on the very edge of modern downtown Portland.

Wildwood relates the adventures of Prue McKeel, an ordinary middle school girl, and her nerdy classmate (and eventual friend) Curtis. Prue lives with her mother, father, and baby brother Mac in Portland’s historic St. John neighborhood. Not far from their home lie the Industrial Waste and the Impassable Wilderness – two areas the city’s residents carefully and fearfully avoid.

As Prue and her brother are playing in the park one afternoon, however, a remarkably organized flock of crows plucks Mac from his wagon and carries him off into the Impassable Wilderness. Prue is devastated and panicked, but she determines to do whatever it takes to retrieve her brother. Followed by a persistent and somewhat annoying Curtis, who saw the kidnapping unfold, she packs a bag and ventures into the forest.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, because the book is a mystery at heart, and much of its magic hinges on clues and surprises and the unexpected ways various threads come together. I’ll say only that, after a number of meetings and adventures (both separately and together), Prue and Curtis do manage to locate Mac but must fight a climactic and tragic battle to try and win him back.

What’s unique about this story is the fact that Prue actually gives up on her quest and goes home about halfway through the book.  Embarrassed, exhausted, and facing puzzling resistance from her parents, she must then convince herself to return to the forest and finish the job she set out to do.

This twist in the plot is also what I found most inspiring about the book. Prue starts out strong but with a somewhat blinkered devotion to doing things independently. And, being a kid (albeit a smarter- and stronger-than-average one), she underestimates the scope of the task she’s set for herself. Both blind spots end up sabotaging her and causing potentially devastating failure.

Pretty true to life, right? How many of us have been in situations where we took on too much, with too little help, and had to watch our work crash into ruin around us? Prue is inspiring, though, because she admits her failure but does not accept it as final. She regroups and reenters the fray, even though she’s wounded. She lets her previous mistakes inform new and better choices.

Independence is built into my DNA. I want to do all my own work – and, sometimes, everyone else’s – all by myself. One of the toughest lessons I’ve had to learn is where my responsibilities end and others’ begin. How to lead others instead of doing everything. How to accept support without feeling so diminished as a person that I remove my own strengths from the equation. These are the lessons Prue learns in Wildwood.

I think an inspired girl is one who feels confident in doing whatever she dreams about doing, who pushes herself to learn and do more than she currently knows, who believes that her sex should not close any doors for her. But I also think she’s a girl who knows how to accept help to get beyond her own limits, who realizes that living involves failing sometimes, who grows through and because of failure to be stronger and a better member of a community. That’s who Prue becomes in Wildwood, and that’s why I see her as a good role model for any inspired girl.

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