Combining the pastoral relationships of Winnie the Pooh, the quest fantasy of The Wizard of Oz, the action of The Hobbit, and the self-conscious awareness of its fictional elements of Stranger than Fiction, Bill Willingham’s first young adult novel is a fantasy tour-de-force.
Down the Mysterly River features Max the Wolf, a Boy Scout that awakens to find himself lost in an analogue of the Pacific Northwest full of talking animals, fearsome Blue Cutters, and strange creation magics. Max, an amateur detective, is determined to root out the source of the strange world in which he finds himself. Accompanied by the warrior badger Banderbrock, the monstrous (in looks and charm) cat McTavish, and the happy-go-lucky ex-sheriff black bear Walden, Max embarks on a quest to find the Wizard Swift’s sanctuary. Along the way, he must fight to survive the pursuit of the evil Blue Cutters, who remake heroes into a prosaic image, the odd deliverer of worlds The Eggman, a raging river, and Max’s own desire to solve the mystery.
Willingham has done to Down the Mysterly River something akin to what he does with Fables. He removes characters from elderly tales and reworks them to fit new scenes and new situations that are like but also unlike the originals. Down the Mysterly River is full of literary allusions that children won’t get and well-read adults will find pure joy. The novel is like the movie Shrek, which often made jokes adults would get while still presenting a quest story children love. Willingham has intertwined his quest (which only gets obviously metafictional towards the end) with literary allusions that will please adult readers. It is clever, and broadens the book’s appeal from just the 4-6 grade readers it appears to be aimed at to the reading populace as a whole.
Max and his friends have the sort of instant trust, almost idyllic friendship that makes Down the Mysterly River read like a 1950s novel populated with “good guy” heroes like the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, The Boxcar Children, or The Bobbsey Twins. Max is a hero of goodness and right, a Boy Scout who knows his law and his oath and takes them seriously. He and the speaking animal companions he befriends are noble, upright, solid citizens—not the angst ridden, darkly mysterious anti-heroes of much of today’s popular fiction. Willingham bucks the trend once again, and by doing so makes his novel that much more exemplary for it.
That is not to say that there isn’t some of that trademark twisting of expectations one has come to expect from Willingham. And while the companionship of Max and his friends may be bucolic, their epic encounters are bloody and occasionally gruesome. Imagine a badger biting into and hanging onto the jawbone of a human, and the spraying gout of blood produced thereby. This is but one of several such scenes in the novel. Willingham doesn’t shy from these depictions in his prose or even from the death of primary characters. (This is Max’s primary character conflict, that he is a young boy who has never seen such horrors, while others of his group see it as par for the course.)
Some readers may dislike the metafictional conclusion to the story, and how some of the plotlines are left open-ended. (Though a sequel has already been announced, so have no fear that this is the end). Also, the story may be too violent in content for some of the younger readers to whom the style and characters would directly appeal.
Still, for all its stylistic simplicity, Down the Mysterly River is a beautiful piece of metafiction—aware of itself yet also enjoyable as a simple quest fantasy. It is highly readable and likely to get lots of effuse praise from the critical establishment, but the pleasure reader will find Down the Mysterly River much to their liking as well. As for the children, they’ll love its accessibility, its unflinching characters, its dangerous story, and its magical setting.
John Ottinger likes a good story. Read about some of the ones he has read at GraspingfortheWind.com.