¡Hola, amigos! As I type this here sentence, I’m situated a terrifying 33,000 feet above South Carolina, just an hour or so away from completing the last leg of my trip back to Richmond from a beachy Mexican locale called Playa del Carmen. And despite the fact that I derive very little enjoyment from being this high in the air, I’m excited to be writing these words, because I’ve been looking forward to this post for a while now. About five months, in fact.
In October of last year, Mrs. You Hear That and I took a trip to Portland (this one, not that one), where we tried some amazing restaurants, flipped through some excellent record stores, stumbled across an absurd number of tasty breweries and made sure to include a stop at the storied Powell’s City of Books. Why storied? Well, size, for one thing. A number of people told us about how Powell’s takes up an entire city block (it’s true, check out this screen grab from Google Maps), giving the store an almost legendary aura. It’s also storied in the sense that there are multiple floors in this city-block-sized bookstore, with separate rooms for different genres, meaning the shelves really do go on forever. And lastly, they’re storied because, ya know, that’s what they sell, and the story I decided to buy couldn’t have been more appropriate for the trip.
Not only was Wildwood (actually called The Wildwood Chronicles: Book I) written by proud Portland resident Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, the events in this young adult novel take place in a magical forest on the outskirts of town, and we actually visited some of the landmarks mentioned in the story during the course of our trip. After reading a decent chunk while we were in Portland, I was hooked, and I was already thinking about how Wildwood would make for the perfect first-ever You Hear That Book Club post, given the author’s day job and all. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Well, what took you so damn long?” The ugly truth is that it took another vacation — this Mexican one — for me to finally finish it. I’m not proud to admit it, but I didn’t read a single damn page of any book in the months between those two trips. What can I say? The Internet is a siren whose song I just can’t seem to resist (I just know that somewhere, at this very moment, my AP English teacher, Mrs. Self, is crossing her arms and shaking her head in disapproval). But I’m so thankful for my Mexican interweb hiatus, because finishing Wildwood made my love for reading fiction come roaring back to life.
Regardless of whether you experience Wildwood while sipping coffee at Stumptown Roasters or while sipping Pacifico on the beach, I highly recommend diving in. If you’re familiar with The Decemberists’ music at all, you already know about Meloy’s incredible gift for writing lyrics. His playful use of language, knack for storytelling and seemingly inexhaustible vocabulary make for songs that feel like micro novellas (I’d call his lyrics “literary,” but I squirm whenever that word is used in that way, kinda like how everyone squirms at the word “moist”). Those same gifts can be found throughout the novel, as can beautiful illustrations by Meloy’s wife, Carson Ellis, but it’s the way Meloy captures the grave seriousness of childhood struggles that makes the story so special.
When you’re a kid, everything is a matter of life and death. Not getting to McDonalds in time to order breakfast can make it seem like the world is coming to a horrific end (I’m pretty sure a sizable percentage of the world’s population has experienced this special kind of anguish at some point). And the zeal and clarity with which protagonist Prue McKeel strives to find her crow-napped baby brother, which is a true matter of life and death, evoke this seriousness vividly. This clarity of purpose is one of my favorite things about young adult fiction. Not because it reduces the complexity of the world around us, but because it acts as a reminder that incredible things are possible when we jettison cynicism in favor of righteous determination.
For fun, I’ve included a Decemberists song below that I think embodies this sense of conviction particularly well, the sea shanty-ish “Rox In The Box,” which can be found on the band’s most recent album, The King Is Dead. If the female voice providing backup harmonies sounds uncannily awesome, that’s because it belongs to none other than THE Gillian Welch. Boy does she kick ass. So does Wildwood, and I hope you’ll click here to snag it on Amazon. If you need a little more convincing, listen to “Rox In The Box” below, click here to buy The King is Dead on iTunes and be sure to look out for their upcoming double live album, which is available for pre-order here.
The Decemberists — “Rox In The Box”