'Wildwood Chronicles' conjures a Portland fantasy

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Unseen in the tree-shrouded hills overlooking downtown Portland are rifle-toting coyotes wearing Napoleonic uniforms, birds ferrying human children on their backs and an army of mole knights living underground.

These are characters that have sprung from the mind of Colin Meloy, frontman and songwriter for the indie folk band The Decemberists.

Meloy and his illustrator wife, Carson Ellis, recently published the third installment of a popular adventure book series for middle-schoolers called "The Wildwood Chronicles." The third volume is titled "Wildwood Imperium."

The main character of the three books isn't a character, but the wooded hills on downtown's doorstep.

In "The Wildwood Chronicles," those woods are off-limits to humans, unless they are touched by the right magic. Prue McKeel, 12, has that magic, as does her classmate Curtis. The book tells of their fantastical adventures in what adults call the Impassable Wilderness.

In the first book, "Wildwood," published in 2011, Prue and Curtis venture into the wilderness to rescue Prue's little brother from an exiled Dowager Governess who had him kidnapped by crows as part of her plot to wipe out all living things in the forest. In the second volume, "Under Wildwood," there's a plot to kill Prue, a mystic is murdered and Prue, Curtis and a rat named Septimus visit an underground city inhabited by moles.

There are more adventures, conspiracies and intrigue in "Wildwood Imperium." The Dowager Governess has returned — in the shape of an ivy-covered creature leading an army of murderous ivy monsters.

Unforgettable is a cell of beret-wearing revolutionaries who enlist the help of orphans to assault Titan Tower, the headquarters of industrialists intent on exploiting the natural landscape. The orphans squeeze through ducts and up elevator shafts to free hostages, and in their escape they and the beret-wearing radicals bring down Titan Tower with explosives. The revolutionaries, who call themselves the Chapeaux Noirs, or black caps, are a comedic bunch. One of them pronounces a manifesto apparently inspired by a Monty Python scene: "We're a radical anarcho-syndicalist collective. Saboteurs. Our aim is to free the proletariat from the yoke of the industrialist state."

On a rainy day in February, Meloy and Ellis were visiting Pittock Mansion — a chateaulike house that's prominent in "The Wildwood Chronicles." In the fantasy series, Pittock Mansion is surrounded by a village inhabited by talking animals — deer, badgers, rabbits and moles, who lead their daily lives alongside people.

The idea of a book set in these woods — called in reality Forest Park — came to Meloy from walks he and Ellis would take in them. They live in the Portland area.

"Years ago I had an idea of Forest Park as its own country, a place of course forbidden by adults, a place children would be curious about and find adventure there," said Meloy.

There are no talking critters at Pittock Mansion on this dreary day. But there is a mystique in these hills. A spectral mist glides among towering Douglas firs, stands of hardwoods and deep ravines.

"The Wildwood Chronicles" trilogy draws its magic from these hills. It's an approach that has given added charm to many a children's story. Think of the Catskill Mountains in "Rip Van Winkle" and the Lake District setting of Peter Rabbit and other Beatrix Potter characters. If you can actually enter the physical realm of a children's story, the enchantment becomes more real.

Each book has nifty maps showing geographic details of "The Wood" — the name given by Meloy and Ellis to their fantasy realm. They used a real map of Forest Park as the basis for "The Wood." Besides Pittock Mansion, there are other features that are real: a ravine that cuts through forest, an abandoned stone house, the Willamette River and a bridge across the Willamette.

To make Meloy's concept of geographic details of Wildwood work, the duo had to stretch and scrunch some borders in the map of "The Wood" and add some features that don't exist.

"You wouldn't use Wildwood as a map to get around" Forest Park, said Ellis.

Verdant, eco-minded and sometimes New Agey, "The Wildwood Chronicles" series certainly feels like literature from this progressive corner of the Pacific Northwest.

Little Prue practices yoga, is a vegetarian, eats granola and tunes up her own bike — a single-speed with toe clips.

English ivy as the embodiment of evil is another nod to local mores. The invasive species is shunned here because of the damage it is doing to native plant species in Forest Park. In real-life Portland, there's even a "No Ivy League" group that regularly goes into Forest Park to tear out the ivy.

For the most part, "The Wildwood Chronicles" series moves along at a snappy pace, although some young readers may find parts of the books a slog. Each volume is more than 500 pages long. Meloy uses lots of description and sometimes obscure or old-fashioned terms. Carson Ellis' illustrations give a welcome breather when the story gets a little wordy.

Folks at Pittock Mansion welcome the attention.

The mansion is owned and cared for by the city of Portland. Readers of "The Wildwood Chronicles" have come to the mansion and the surrounding woods to see the real places where the fantasy adventures occur.

Staff members at Pittock Mansion also get a kick out of "The Wildwood Chronicles," said Angela Allee, marketing communications manager at the mansion.

"We've had several fun conversations about 'The Wildwood Chronicles' and the talking coyote soldiers in the Impassable Wilderness," Allee said.