NPR has loved the Decemberists for years, so it’s no surprise that they made it to Bob Boilen’s office for a Tiny Desk concert. And yet they are probably one of the biggest bands to appear at the Tiny Desk, so I was quite excited to hear this show. They play 3 songs, all from The King is Dead: “Down by the Water” (naturally), “Rox in the Box” and “The June Hymn.”
Colin is in good chatty form (after almost getting hit in the face by a violin bow) and makes a very funny comment about thinking that everyone would be working while they played. He also—I think a first in Tiny Desk history—screws up a song (“The June Hymn”) and has to restart the whole thing—it’s a very minor flub, only noticeable if you listen a few times, but he noticed and clearly felt bad (and didn’t curse either).
The songs sound great even if they’re not radically different from the recorded version (the harmonica solos are the big “improv” moments). And this set confirms what a solid bunch of songs The King is Dead is.
[READ: July 7, 2011] Wildwood
I had this book signed by Colin and Carson at BEA. I was so psyched to see that they were signing there, that I got up super early, took the bus into Manhattan and got to the convention center before it opened (I thought they were signing at 7:30, but it was actually 8:30). Of course, I didn’t see the fine print that said I needed a ticket to meet the author and illustrator. In fact, I didn’t even realize that people were holding tickets until I was next on line. I asked the nice BEA worker if I could still go. She said they wouldn’t sign a book, but that I could say hello.
I told Colin and Carson that I loved their stuff and I gushed over them like a little fanboy (even mentioned having a Tarkus album) and they gave me a copy of the book anyway (signed by them both). How cool!
So this book is an older children’s book (I would say on a level of The Mysterious Benedict Society–which the book reminded me of because Carson did the illustrations for that series as well, although the books are nothing alike in content).
I have always loved Colin’s lyrics (yeah, he signed my book, we’re on a first name basis now). They are fantastical and fantastic, and he has a great vocabulary, pulling out obscure words for rhymes. There’s a generally accepted tenet in writing that poetry is more powerful than prose because poems are typically honed with perfect word choices, whereas prose tends to be a bit lazier because there’s so many more words to play with (ideally, prose should also be finely honed, but it’s much more noticable in poetry). And so given this, I guess it’s no surprise that Wildwood is not as impactful as Colin’s songs. There are couplets from Decemberists songs that run through my head all the time, but there weren’t any great phrases in the book that really stuck with me. Of course, at 540 pages you wouldn’t expect too many phrases to jump out at you (images and scenes and chracters yes, but phrases, no).
All of this is a long way of saying that I really enjoyed the story, but I wasn’t blown away by the language of the book.
The story follows Prue McKeel, a young girl who is pretty ordinary. She lives in Portland (the Wildwood of the title is in Oregon, not New Jersey, which isn’t surprising since they’re from Oregon, but a Jersey kid can hope), goes to school and has a pretty happy home life. Her mom and dad are nice (I love that her parents are suffused with all the trappings of hippie Oregon–it’s like Portlandia in print!) and her baby brother, Mac, is pretty okay too. The image that will stick with me is of Prue taking her brother for a bike ride: she transports him through the most peculiar (and reckless and dangerous) way I can imagine–she attaches a Radio Flyer wagon to her bike and plops him in the wagon. I just have to ask–how did he not fall out??
The story immediately announces itself as fantastical when a murder of crows swoops down out of the sky and grabs Mac from the ground and flies away with him. Now, Prue was supposed to be watching Mac, so although it’s not her fault a bunch of birds grabbed Mac and flew away with him, it is her fault, you know? So Prue hops on her bike and follows the birds through the city (a very exciting scene of reckless bike riding). She skids to a halt when she sees them fly into The Impassable Wilderness.
What’s a young girl to do? Well, she takes Mac’s blanket, packs it with mud, makes a kind of lump out of it and brings him home. Now, despite all of the fantasy in the story (and there’s a lot) the single most unbelievable thing happens right now–Mac’s parents don’t notice that “Mac” is a lump of mud. Prue tries to hide him from them, but everyone knows that parents can never not touch a baby, certainly not through the night. Let’s hope the younger readers can look past that.
But Prue wakes up super early, takes a bag of gorp, a flashlight and other sundry things and heads for the Impassable Wilderness. There is a detailed history of the Wilderness (from the Portland side of things), but suiffice it to say that no people go in there. There’s scary animals sounds and a general sense of foreboding, including stories about people who ventured in but never made it back. As she gets to the edge of the forest she is stopped by Curtis, a boy from her class.
Curtis is the boy who never outgrew drawing pictures. Prue and Curtis were friends when they were younger and they drew pictures together. But in the last few years they haven’t been very friendly (I mean he still draws pictures all the time). Curtis says he saw what happened yesterday with the crows, and he herad her clanging by on her bike and he wants to help.
She’s reluctant, but he follows along nattering at her. The sneak into the Wilderness, but when they both have to outrun a train that is heading into the Wilderness, they are more or less together on their quest for Mac.
The first big surprise comes when they see a pack of coyotes. The animals are walking on hind legs, they are dressed in uniforms and they are speaking English. They don’t notice the kids at first, but when the wind shifts, the coyotes smell them and charge. Prue and Curtis split up. Prue gets away by Curtis doesn’t.
And this is when I knew that this story was doing something different. Rather than having the kids work together to solve a puzzle, they are immeidatly separated and, indeed work on (unbeknownst to them) opposing sides for much of the story.
And all of this is in the first 75 or so pages!
The Impassable Wilderness turns out to be a thriving community of talking animals, humans and other magical beings. The land has a vast histroy, there are different “communities”–some urban, other quite rural, and while they were once on civil terms, recently things have happened that have caused a serious rift between the lands. And, of course, Mac is at the center of it all.
This is a big book–Prue and Curtis go on entirely separate advnetures and each of their stories is told in great detail. I’m not going to give anything more away about the story (there’s just way too much) but I will say that there are wonderful sequences, high adventure, genuinely scary moments, and some real surprises.
Some things that I loved about the story: Meeting the Governess had echoes of Narnia, but Colin went in a very different direction with it; I loved that when Prue leaves the Wilderness at one point, time had in fact been passing at home–and her parents were worried sick; I was blown away by the surprise that comes about 2/3 of the way into the story, as well as many of the little surprises as well. And the ending was surpringly bittersweet.
I do want to point out that for a children’s book, the story is pretty dark (not unusual for children’s books, just a caveat). There is a pretty intense battle in the book, and lots of characters are killed (not up close–but there is a lot of battlefield death), and the scenes where Mac becomes a central plot point are pretty intense. Of course, fans of The Decemberists know that Colin does not shy away from death and murder.
I really enjoyed the book. It seemed to take a long time to read, but I can’t say that it ever felt too long. It’s just a jam-packed story.
I feel like I read that this was going to become a series (but I can’t seem to confirm that now). The book ends in a way that allows for future adventures in Wildwood, but thankfully doesn’t end on a cliffhanger or anything like that. I hope that there are more adventures there. The world is so fully realized that it will be quite easy to jump right back in and see what has transpired there.
There’s a website dedicated to the book as well.
Good for you Colin (oh and wonderful pictures, Carson–I love her style, it is entirely her own).