Cupboards, Vaults and Underground Tunnels: Digging into N. D. Wilson's Fiction

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It's been a while since I've gotten caught up in a book in a way reminiscent of my experience with C. S. Lewis' and J. R. R. Tolkien's works. Okay, it will probably still be a while before I find something comparable to Tolkien - I'm holding out for the next world. But N. D. Wilson's got me. After reading his dancing and dizzying Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, it was really only a matter of (very short) time before I started in on his fiction. And a whirlwind of a month or so later, I'm stuck having nothing left of his to read, and anticipating September when his next book comes out.

His fiction is written for children, with an imagination and craftsmanship that takes its readers seriously and thus can reach a wide audience, including those no longer supposed to be playing dress-up. Personally, I can't wait to read these books to my kids, should God so bless us, and in the meantime my husband and I have enjoyed reading and discussing them. Wilson is a skilled writer, very aware of what he's doing with sentences and imagery, and I found the storytelling of sophisticated enough craft to not only hold my attention, but spark it. And when it comes down to it, he spins a good yarn: exciting plot, seductive landscapes and quirky and compelling characters. Actually, his character portrayals and development are particularly successful. I appreciate his attention to creating secondary characters in such a way that one recognizes them to be significant; had a different storyteller chosen, the story could have been told from their perspectives with equal interest. Also, the adult characters aren't demoted to the characterization that seems to haunt them in much children's literature: irrelevant, boring, ineffective, unable to understand, or just plain oppressive. Thus, even if as a thirty year old you have a hard time following around a thirteen year old protagonist, you may find yourself invested in the story for the sake of the forty year old father trying to make a go of it by selling tumbleweed on the internet.

I started with 100 Cupboards, and knew after the first few pages that I was in the hands of a storyteller whose work I could respect. The initial description of the town of Henry, Kansas, was emotive and impressive. Granted, as an English major I'm particularly guilty of looking for ways in which landscapes interact with the characters, reflecting, subverting, creating them. But I think Wilson is fully aware of this too, and uses it in a very productive way. The main character of this particular series (which includes #2 Dandelion Fire and #3 The Chestnut King) is Henry, accompanied in many of his adventures by his cousin Henrietta. Yes, Henry and Henrietta. And it works. The basic premise: a kid with a pretty sheltered upbringing spends the summer at his cousins' farm and discovers a wall of cupboards behind the plaster walls of his room. And of course, they aren't for holding socks. As with the Lewis' wardrobe made from a Narnian-grown tree, so are Wilson's cupboards made from wood with a tendency to transport...

The only complaint I had against this series was the matter of pacing in a few sections. I felt the end of book one a little rushed - with the villain appearing and disappearing a little too quickly and dramatically. Book two produced the opposite reading experience for me as I felt it started a little slowly, with a bit too much "recap" of book one, but then accelerated in a fantastic accrual of events and characters. What I perceive as weaknesses of pacing are minor, and don't detract from the overall thrill and thrust of the books. And indeed, book two boasts one of the best battle presentations (in terms of pacing and attention to what is described and what is not) my husband claims he's ever read; I have to agree.

Wilson's Ashtown Buriel series seems to be progressing in an equally positive direction, but the book I am currently excited about is his first and shortest, Leepike Ridge. I think I had the lowest expectations for this one (not sure why), and so it turned out to be a surprisingly pleasurable experience. I read it in a day, following its eleven year old protagonist down a river and under a mountain. More than any of the books, Wilson nails the narrative pacing here - it's dynamic and contemplative all at once. Its world feels simpler than the other books, and yet, like the others, and like the events of the plot itself, it digs deeper. It draws on old stories like the Odyssey. It weaves in a counter-cultural view of history. And it does so in a way that will keep an eleven year old engaged and thinking and enjoying.

With the books back on the bookshelf (until I return them to the public library), what I think I value about them the most is that like with the Narnia Chronicles, Till We Have Faces and The Lord of the Rings, they continue on in the real world. Wilson has said in regards to his own writing that he seeks to open peoples' eyes to the wonder around them, to the magic that is woven into the world we live in. And it's true. He doesn't squirm around suffering and death. He doesn't avoid the beauty and danger intrinsic to life.

And I will never look at dandelions the same way again.


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