All in the Family
By Natalie StandifordJanuary 18, 2012
The Apothecary by Maile Meloy
Wildwood by Colin Meloy
Prue and Curtis in the I.W. from Wildwood Illustration © Carson Ellis
TALENTED FAMILIES ARE the nature-versus-nurture debate come to life. How do two or more writers turn up in one family? Is there such a thing as literary genes, or a writerly upbringing? Maybe it's just a coincidence; certainly there are more examples of writers whose siblings have other interests entirely. Literary families are the anomaly. And, like any rarity, they fascinate.
There aren't a whole lot of examples of literary siblings where all shine equally bright: Emily and Charlotte Brontë (both better known today than their siblings, Anne and Branwell), Margaret Drabble and A.S. Byatt (famous feuders), Nancy and Jessica Mitford ... One sibling is often more successful than the others, as in the case of Evelyn and Alec Waugh, or in the Minot family, where all seven children are artists of one sort or another but Susan is the star.
Until last year, Maile and Colin Meloy were stars in separate galaxies. Maile is the acclaimed author of the novels Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, and the story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. Colin is the lead singer of The Decemberists, an arty folk rock collective whose fantastical, narrative albums have captured a wide and impassioned audience. Last year, sister and brother both ventured into new skies, albeit the same one: Maile Meloy's The Apothecary was published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in October, while Colin Meloy's Wildwood came out in August, courtesy of HarperCollins. Both are young adult novels.
It's not hugely surprising to find either Maile or Colin Meloy writing young adult fiction, or YA, as it's referred to among fans and publishers. Maile's previous work focuses on family as a nexus of drama and character. The children in her stories are evoked with as much sensitivity as the adults. And while her subject matter is complex and nuanced, stylistically, her prose is young-reader-friendly. "Sometimes, in bored wanderings through the house, Abby took pictures off the master bedroom wall and lay on the bed looking at them," she writes in A Family Daughter.
She liked Yvette's wedding picture, with Teddy in his pilot's uniform during the war. And she liked a picture of the two girls: Clarissa with her dark hair coming out of its curls, and Margot standing behind her, polished and serene. Abby would study the pictures and then hang them back on the wall and turn on the TV. In the heat wave they were airing Coke and Pepsi and 7UP commercials, and Abby had memorized them all. She sang the jingles absently in the bath.
A Maile Meloy reader is not surprised to see her diving wholly into an adolescent point of view.
Wildwood is Colin's first novel, but as a songwriter he has experience in fashioning imaginary worlds. The Decemberists' songs conjure a fantasy universe of wanderers, murderers, and high-seas adventures. The titles alone suggest old-fashioned narratives: "Eli, The Barrow Boy," "The Abduction of Margaret," "The Mariner's Revenge Song" (practically a Dickens novel in song form). "The Shankill Butchers," from their album The Crane Wife, sounds like the kind of spooky bogeyman story kids like to tell at bedtime:
The Shankill butchers ride tonight
You better shut your windows tight ...
'Cause everybody knows
If you don't mind your mother's words
A wicked wind will blow
Your ribbons from your curls
Everybody moan, everybody shake
The Shankill butchers wanna catch you
If this literary predilection weren't enough, Wildwood is a collaboration with his wife, Carson Ellis, is a well-established illustrator of children's literature.
The Apothecary opens with "A note to the reader" written in 2011 by Jane Scott, now an adult looking back on her childhood in the 1950s. She then begins her tale in Los Angeles in 1952, where 14-year-old Janie, the daughter of a witty Hollywood couple, lives a sunny life recently shadowed by suspicion and paranoia.
I had the smartest, funniest parents I knew, and they had friends who were almost as smart and funny. They were a writing team, Marjorie and Davis Scott, and they had started in radio and worked together on television shows, first on Fireside Theater, then on I Love Lucy. They had story retreats in Santa Barbara, and the other writers' kids and I would run through the avocado fields, playing elaborate games of tag and kick-the-can. We would gather avocados that fell from the trees, and eat fat, green slices with salt right out of the shell. We swam in the ocean and played in the waves, and lay in the sand with the sun on our skin.
Alas, the L.A. idyll is brief. McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist loom, and the Scotts flee to foggy London where the mood of the book darkens with the weather.
Janie's charming parents soon disappear from the story almost completely as she gets caught up in a Cold War espionage plot. She starts ninth grade at an English school, where she meets Benjamin Burrows, the ambitious and rebellious son of an apothecary. When the apothecary disappears under sinister circumstances, Janie and Benjamin are swept up in international intrigue that involves magic elixirs and possible nuclear disaster. There are Russian spies, a Chinese chemist, several physicists, a sacred book that reveals the secret powers of plants, a treacherous Latin teacher, an East End street urchin, and a beautiful rich girl. Janie and her friends use the apothecary's elixirs to become invisible, to turn into birds and fly, and to turn their adversaries into piles of salt or force them to tell the truth. They wind up on a Norwegian freighter headed for the Arctic to stop a Soviet hydrogen bomb test that could destroy the world. Along the way, Janie develops an affection for Benjamin that may or may not blossom into love — if they survive their adventures.
Maile Meloy writes with sensitivity from the mind and heart of a 14-year-old girl. Janie's voice is dry, smart, funny, practical, and good company. At one moment of crisis (there are many), when her life is in danger, she has this very believable teenage thought:
Shiskin still had the revolver pointed at my head, and my mind was strangely detached. I thought what a peculiar way this would be to die, and how it was the last thing I would have expected: to be killed at sea by a one-legged man, while a teenaged boy tried to get the other leg on him. Who would explain it to my parents?
The book mixes the real — it features a cameo appearance by an actual historical figure, Andrei Sakharov — with fantasy in a satisfying way. Magic is possible in this almost-real place, but somehow, in a Cold War world where a single explosion can wipe out millions at the press of a button, invisibility does not seem so far-fetched. If scientists can invent a way to destroy the world at a stroke, why not an herb whose smell makes you to tell the truth?
Wildwood, set in present-day Portland, Oregon, is both more realistic and more of a fantasy than The Apothecary: the real is more real and the magic is more magic. The scenes of 12-year-old Prue McKeel's life — with its rice milk and library books, coffee shops, record shops, and veggie tostadas — could be the idealized version of any hipster child's routine. Like Janie, Prue is sensible and likable. "As she walked, she breathed a quick benediction to the patron saint of sleuthing. 'Nancy Drew,' she whispered, 'be with me now.'" (Who could resist a girl who prays to Nancy Drew?) When her baby brother is kidnapped by a murder of crows and flown into the Impassable Wilderness that borders the city, Prue and her friend Curtis go looking for him and find themselves in a woodland realm where animals speak, govern, and battle alongside humans. At first Wildwood feels a bit reminiscent of Wes Anderson's movie version of Roald Dahl'sFantastic Mr. Fox, but it soon acquires a style of its own. Instead of foxes there is an army of coyotes who live in a series of underground tunnels ruled by a power-and-grief-mad Dowager Governess. Also populating the Wilderness are a helpful postmaster general, a wise old mystic woman, an owl who is the Crown Prince of a society of birds, and a gang of Robin Hood-type bandits who live by their wits like gypsies in the woods. Wildwood is only the wildest part of the Impassable Wilderness; other sections are more civilized: North Wood, South Wood, the Old Woods, the Ancients' Grove, the Avian Principality, and so on, each with its own culture. It's like a fleshed-out Decemberists song, and the chanteys the bandits and coyotes sing are, of course, particularly wonderful.
Prue and her friend Curtis are Outsiders, a rare sight in the Impassable Wilderness. Curtis is quickly captured by the Governess and her coyote army, while Prue makes her way deep into the Wilderness in search of her brother. The story switches back and forth between their points of view as Curtis becomes a soldier and Prue a seeker.
Reading Wildwood sometimes feels like watching a kid play with his toy soldiers; it can get bogged down in detail. But where Maile excels at painting her heroine's inner landscape, Colin writes with a poetic specificity about the natural landscape. "There were now dozens of birds, each of the blackest pitch, piercing cold empty holes in the widening sky." And: "As many shades of green as Prue could imagine were draped across the landscape: the electric emerald of the ferns and the sallow olive of the drooping lichen and the stately gray-green of the fir branches." The world of Wildwood is as vivid, dangerous, and exciting as those set forth in Meloy's lyrics.
Bright young readers will love both books. Each adventure packs surprises and delights, and both arrive at somber conclusions. The best young adult fiction entertains the child while simultaneously nurturing the burgeoning adult. The end of The Apothecary finds Janie Scott "feeling like I might spill over with a helpless, giddy laughter, and with a sad and serious ache underneath." Anyone who has crossed the threshold between childhood and adulthood recognizes that ache — it's the one that never quite goes away. If anything, we forget that once it was new. Iphigenia, Wildwood's Elder Mystic, says: "My dear Prue, we are the inheritors of a wonderful world, a beautiful world, full of life and mystery, goodness and pain. But likewise are we the children of an indifferent universe. We break our own hearts imposing our moral order to what is, by nature, a wide web of chaos. It is a hopeless task." Growing up doesn't just mean you get to take fantastic adventures; the price of that freedom is responsibility. There is no one way to describe the burden and joy of responsibility, but this subject is one of the preoccupations of young adult fiction, and in their distinct, worthy novels, the Meloys leave their young readers with a similar message: Here are the keys to the world. Drive with care.
Natalie Standiford is the author of How to Say Goodbye in Robot and Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters. The Secret Tree, a middle grade novel, will be published in May. She lives in New York.
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