One of the reasons I love Wisconsin so much is its wild places.
–Wisconsin photos by photographer and friend Emily Ebeling and myself–
For all the suburbs decimating the farmland, for all the whacky tourist traps and tailored nature, there are still large swatches of wilderness that cluster together in defiance of farm and town alike. You can see these swatches set off by corn, wheat and soy, or perhaps by a state road, or even by the great Wisconsin River. These barriers keep us apart, we people and the bears, coyotes, wolves, and whatever else hunts and hides among the verdant life.
It is about such barriers I’d like to speak.
Prue of Colin Meloy’s Wildwood lives near a place modern society has ignored for centuries. It’s not that no one sees it; in fact, this place is on any map of Portland:
As long as Prue could remember, every map she had ever seen of Portland and the surrounding countryside had been blotted with a large, dark green patch in the center, like a growth of moss from the northwest corner to the southwest and labeled with the mysterious initials “I.W.” (13).
When Prue asks her father about the “Impassable Wilderness” and why no one lives there, he likens it to Siberia—too inhospitable a land for people, so people simply leave it alone. End of story. Adults never talk about it, kids occasionally tease about it, but otherwise the Impassable Wilderness is simply a place no one enters, like the spooky house at the end of your street. It’s there, you know it’s there, you want to know what’s in there, but like heck are you going in to find out. It reminds me of two other books I’ve studied this year: Annihilation and Enchanted Glass. Both stories have settings outside of our perception of normal, and the settings of these stories can be seen in some capacity by those outside it.
The barrier, however, is another matter. In Enchanted Glass, Aidan and Andrew have to feel out the boundary of Andrew’s field-of-care by walking; there’s a sort of buzz in their feet to let them know when they’re on the boundary, and when they go off-track. In Annihilation, the biologist and others are hypnotized to pass through the barrier, but on either side of the barrier, there’s nothing to see. Scientists even drive animals into the barrier at one point just to mark its location. Where do they know the barrier lies? Where animals vanish completely into silence.
Unlike Enchanted Glass and Annihilation, the barrier described between Prue’s town of St. Johns and the Impassable Wilderness is quite, quite visible:
Here at the eastern side of the Willamette River was a natural border between the tight-knit community of St. Johns and the riverbank, a three-mile length of cliff simply called the bluff…The crows had cleared the precipice and were funneling skyward like a shivering black twister cloud, framed by the rising smoke from the many smelters and smokestacks of the Industrial Wastes, a veritable no-man’s-land on the other side of the river, long ago claimed by the local industrial barons and transformed into a forbidding landscape of smoke and steel. Just beyond the Wastes, through the haze, lay a rolling expanse of deeply forested hills, stretching out as far as the eye could see. (11-12)
Meloy’s taken two extremes—Industrialization, Nature—and slams them next to one another for the clearest possible contrast between what society is familiar with, and the unknown. Like Prue, we see the height of man’s victory over land, as well as his defeat. The special touch comes with the name “Wastes”: for all of man’s business and industry, he can not maintain it. Now all that’s left is rotten, disused, worthless. It’s a sort of wasteland we as everyday readers can understand; we pass such rotting structures all the time in real life.
But what we don’t often see is a murder of crows kidnap a baby, which is what happens to Prue in the first line of Wildwood:
How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries. (first line)
Those crows flying over the Wastes are the ones carrying her brother, and like the twister clouds, those vicious forces of nature, Prue can’t stop the “black twister cloud” carrying her brother from crossing over the Wastes and entering the Impassable Wilderness.
Now if a twelve-year-old girl is to make it into the Impassable Wilderness (and therefore give us a story), then the barrier itself can’t be impassable. It doesn’t need to appear and disappear in different places like the windows and fairy doors in Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call—that feels too complicated for Meloy’s universe. Crossing the barrier to rescue a baby is a serious business, so using Jones’ humor of taking Aidan and Andrew through a manure-addled pasture and a home’s loo doesn’t feel appropriate. And making a barrier erase anything that vanishes through it like Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X would be too damn terrifying—imagine being a kid and seeing a baby, already being flown off by crows, now vanish in midair. Why would Prue think the kid alive at that point?
Meloy successfully utilizes elements to create a barrier that is eerie without causing young readers to freak out:
The only thing beyond the bluff that was exposed above the bank of clouds was the imposing iron lattice of the Railroad Bridge. It seemed to float, unmoored, on the river mist. Prue dismounted her bike and walked it south along the bluff toward an area where the cliff side sloped down into the clouds. The world around her dimmed to white as she descended.
When the ground below Prue’s feet finally evened out, she found she was standing in an alien landscape. The mist clung to everything, casting the world in a ghostly sheen. A slight wind was buffeting through the gorge, and the mist occasionally shifted to reveal the distant shapes of desiccated, wind-blown trees. The ground was covered in a dead yellow grass. (33)
I love the ghostly element of the “unmoored” iron Railroad Bridge—there’s a sort of River Styxian moment here, especially with words like “alien,” “mist,” and “ghostly sheen.” Nothing thrives: trees are grass alike are dried out and shriveled to nothing.
In utilizing a smart mix of sensory details and man’s thirst for industry, Meloy succeeds in creating a barrier that imposes, haunts, and intimidates his heroine. This early encounter with danger—and bravery—assures readers that they walk with a hero worthy of attention, and that they begin a journey so full of action the challenges begin before the hero’s even out the door.
Who says crossing the threshold can’t be its own adventure?