Though Down the Mysterly River is written primarily for middle-graders, the fact that it is scribed by Bill Willingham proved irresistible. You may know Willingham as the creator and author of the Vertigo series entitled Fables. He won me over long ago, and I don’t mind admitting that I’ll give anything he writes a chance.
Down the Mysterly River proved an enjoyable read, even for an old man such as me. It is the story of Max the Wolf, a twelve-year-old Boy Scout who awakens upon an otherworldly planet much like his own except for the fact that this one has talking animals. He soon befriends three such animals – a warrior badger named Banderbrock; a hellcat conqueror called McTavish; and a sheriff bear that answers to Walden. Their adventure beings almost immediately as they are pursued by the Blue Cutters, a self-righteous group of huntsmen who will use their magic swords to cut all of the “bad” out of their quarry.
The quest for safety begins, and as any story such as this should, the group is told to seek out a wizard that shall protect them. However, the tale takes a decidedly interesting turn, one that I’ve seen before, but that made it no less enticing. And quite frankly, for most middle-school students, the big reveal will likely be the first time they’ve experienced such a thing and I can only guess at the explosion it will cause within their young imaginations.
Down the Mystery River is not without some issues. My biggest objection is with the main character, Max the Wolf. Though the boy be only twelve, he is written to employ the dialogue of a forty-year-old. Now, Willingham cleverly addresses this issue, but the explanation did not settle well with me even though it did not contract the plot. I also found the story a little too tethered to the “quest” formula. Granted, the book was not written for me, it was written for those half my age, and I have no qualms stating that I’m certain the “quest” will be right up most young people’s alley.
I’d now like to talk about what Willingham got right. As usual, his sentences are a delight. And while his characters speak sometimes too similarly, he gave Max, Walden, Banderbrock, and McTavish each a distinctive personality that wins the audience over. It goes without saying that the devilish McTavish steals the show. Willingham had me laughing outright at some of the barn cat king’s antics. Furthermore, near the end of the book, Willingham introduces a plot device that will probably change students’ outlook on literature and its possibilities. I will forever be grateful to Willingham for taking students to such an imaginative and thought-provoking place.
Down the Mysterly River followed the typical conventions of a “quest” book for the most part, but the climax, as well as truly original, fun, charismatic characters far outshined that adherence to tradition. This book will spark the imaginations of young men and women everywhere, and I daresay many adults—not just the Willingham fans, either—will have no desire to put it down before completion.