“Her entire placid, predictable life now seemed to hinge on this one single event, everything she’d ever felt or believed coming into terrible relief. Nothing her parents had told her, nothing she’d ever learned in school, could possibly have prepared her for this thing that was happening. Or, really, what was to follow.”
Wildwood – the first book, apparently, of a forthcoming series – is a product of the creative mind of Colin Meloy, lead singer of the indie rock band The Decemberists, along with delightful and expressive illustrations from his wife, Carson Ellis. The book is set in Portland, Oregon, where the couple resides, and which happens to be the large city just north of my own, giving it an extra appeal for me. The “otherworld” entered by the protagonist, called the Impassible Wilderness in our world, is based on Forest Park, the largest city park in the country.
(On a related tangent, another novel set in Forest Park, but this one based on true events, is the powerful My Abandonment by Peter Rock. It is told by a 13-year old girl who lives deep in the park with her father, hidden away from society. But one small mistake of hers leads to their discovery, and a journey – often alone – through the “real world” which is as strange to her as any otherworld. It is not fully a GU book, but has elements of such.)
Prue, 12 years old, lives a normal life with her parents and baby brother. One day she is taking her brother out for a stroll when he is abducted by a flock of crows, who carry him across the river and into a murky, off-limits area called the Impassable Wilderness. Astonished and terrified, Prue hides the kidnapping from her parents and sets out the next day to reclaim her brother, accompanied by a school friend named Curtis who insists on coming along despite her protestations. However, very soon upon entering the magical forest, Curtis is captured by coyotes dressed as soldiers, and begins his own separate adventures (while they are reunited in the end, he is thus barely a companion to Prue).
SPOILERS AHEAD It is slowly revealed that a witch called the Dowager Governess sent the crows to steal the baby, to use him most terribly in her mad war of revenge against the rest of the land. The coyote soldiers form her army (i.e., the adversary’s minions). Curtis initially helps them (which touches on the common theme of “betrayal by companion”) because he does not know of the Governess’ involvement in the kidnapping. Meanwhile, Prue makes a succession of alliances with various human and animal denizens of this world in the quest to find her brother, although her involvement often gets them in trouble. She criss-crosses the various lands (the Wildwood is but one part) in search of him.
Eventually, just when it seems like things are going well, Prue is captured by the Dowager Governess (and brought underground, to her lair in the coyote warren), and manipulated into returning home. (The brief return home in the middle of the journey is also a common GU element.) Once she tells her parents her outlandish but true story, they relate to her an even more unbelievable one, which reveals her seemingly normal existence to be anything but – and hints at why it is that she can enter the Wood without resistance, despite the heavy spell of protection laid on the boundaries. She resolves to go back and finish her quest, eventually assembling almost all the other folk of the Wood in a rag-tag army to confront the Governess and her soldiers.
The final showdown with the adversary is unfortunately not one-on-one, and the Governess is actually defeated by one of Prue’s allies, although it is Prue’s own hidden power that ends up saving her brother. Even though a part of her belongs there, Prue does leave the otherworld and return home permanently, with her brother, to the delight of her parents. But in a unique twist, her original companion Curtis (who appears to have his own connection to the Wood) decides to stay there.