'Wildwood Chronicles' conjures a Portland fantasy

Colin Meloy, left, front man and songwriter for the indie folk band The Decemberists, and his wife, illustrator Carson Ellis, have just published “Wildwood Imperium,” the third installment of the “Wildwood Chronicles,” a popular adventure series for middle-schoolers. In the background is Pittock Mansion which appears prominently in the series.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, April 20, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 17, 2014 at 6:43 p.m.

PORTLAND, Ore. — 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.

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.

“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. 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.

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.

“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. Ellis' illustrations are a welcome breather when the story gets a little wordy.

Folks at Pittock Mansion welcome the attention. It's owned and cared for by the city of Portland. Readers of “The Wildwood Chronicles” come to see where the fantasy adventures take place.

Staff members at Pittock Mansion also get a kick out of the books, 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.”

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