“The Wood Wife” by Terri Windling

“When I was a boy, my mother used to tell me that at night the saguaro all dance together.  That’s why they look the way they do–with all their arms raised high.  They won’t move while you’re watching them, they wait until you fall asleep.  And then at dawn they all have to rush to get back into place again.  She used to say to me, ‘Close your eyes, mijo; the saguaro are waiting for you to sleep so they can run off to dance…'”

~”The Wood Wife” by Terri Windling

I chose “The Wood Wife” by Terri Windling as my first book for this year’s Once Upon a Time Challenge.  Carl recommended it to me during last year’s challenge, and I thought that it would be a fitting start.

The book tells the story of a writer named Maggie Black.  She has been corresponding with a poet named Davis Cooper for many years, and learns upon his death that she has inherited his house , despite having never physically met him.  She travels to the Arizona desert with the hope of writing his biography.  As she learns more about Cooper and his wife, the surrealist painter Anna Navera, she begins to realize that the strange mythological creatures depicted in their art and poetry are real.  Her search for answers regarding Cooper’s mysterious death leads her to discover a world much more complex than she had imagined.

Books like this one are quite special.  As an American, I often feel that our culture is devoid of legend and myth.  The closest thing we have are stories about Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, but let’s face it, they’re kind of lame.  Windling’s mythic fiction combines Native American trickster stories with Celtic and Mexican influences in order to create a mythology with a distinctly North American feel.  I’m a big fan and would like to read more books like this one.

One of the things that I loved about this book were Windling’s descriptions of the desert.  I’ve never been to the desert, but I would like to live there one day.

Windling’s writing is lush and poetic.  I particularly liked how she headed each chapter with a segment from Cooper’s poems.  I feel as if I’m drawn to books about creative people.  The characters in “The Wood Wife” were well-drawn and believable while still retaining a unique feel.  I was amused by Maggie’s ongoing friendship with her ex-husband; it’s rare to see divorced couples in literature be able to be on speaking terms with each other.

Windling’s writing reminds me a bit of Charles de Lint’s stories, as both authors work from a similar concept.  Windling’s spirits feel a bit more sinister than de Lint’s, although in practice they both represent amoral creatures that don’t operate on the good vs. evil dichotomy.  “The Wood Wife” is an excellent choice for anyone interested in mythic fiction.

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This book also counts toward the Award Winning Books Reading Challenge hosted by Gathering Books, as the novel was the winner of the 1997 Mythopoeic Award for Best Novel.  I am also including it in the Speculative Fiction Challenge hosted by Baffled Books.

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Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Urban Fantasy | Tags: , , , , , | 28 Comments

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28 thoughts on ““The Wood Wife” by Terri Windling

  1. I was kinda thinking of reading this one for this year’s un-challenge, but even just scanning your response and the comments (I’m spoiler-phobic, so I don’t want to look too hard just yet) has made me want to leap to the shelf and make it a ForSure read for this year’s event. I’ve had it sitting here for ages, and it sounds like something I’m going to want to re-read, so I’d best get to actually reading so I can get to the re-reading sooner!

  2. md

    Terri Windling was an editor before she was an author and she edited Charles de Lint’s books for many years, so there is a definite connection between these two authors. Windling wrote The Wood Wife before de Lint started writing desert fiction, though, so when it comes to mythic fantasy set in the desert, his work should be compared to hers rather than the other way around!!!

    I’m a big fan of this book and glad to see others discovering it. (I love de Lint’s work too of course.) There’s a Q & A with Windling about it on the Good Reads site: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/310361-q-a-with-terri-windling-march-27th-april-3rd-sat-sat

    Other books I’d recommend with modern American myth: Something Rich and Strange by Patricia McKillip, Hannah’s Garden by Midori Snyder, Talking Man by Terry Bisson. Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Alice Hoffman (no relation), and Elizabeth Hand whose work is a bit darker are really good too.

    • One of the things that I loved about “The Wood Wife” was seeing Windling’s writing style; you can tell that the language flows very smoothly and naturally and the book is extremely well-edited. I made the comparison to de Lint because I read him first, so it’s interesting to find out that Windling’s work influenced him.

      I’m reading over the Q&A with Windling and it’s very interesting! Thank you for sharing it. I’ll also definitely check out your suggestions. 😀

  3. This definitely sounds like a book that I would love. It reminded me of Charles de Lint. The desert elemnt sounds great. I’ve been in the desert but not in the US. It’s amazing but I’d love to visit the desert in the US as well. I think it must be very different from the Sahara.

    • I think that you’d definitely enjoy “The Wood Wife.” It’s a lot like Charles de Lint, but I think that I liked Windling’s writing style even better than de Lint’s (and that’s saying a lot, because I’m obsessed with Charles de Lint). I just wish that she’d have written more novels.

      I feel like I’m a bad American because I’ve been to other continents but never any farther west than Texas.

  4. I was thinking as I read your review that it reminded me of De Lint, and then was so amused when you made the same observation! It’s the creative people with connections to nature-based magic, I think… Sounds intriguing, and like it has a very strong atmosphere.

    • I’m a huge fan of Charles de Lint’s writing, so I’m always happy to find something similar.

      • I must say that everybody is raving about Charles deLint so much that I’ve had to go and check him out – my library have quite a lot of his books and I must say they look right up my street. I feel almost ashamed for not having read any previously. 😀
        Lynn

  5. I’ll add this book to my list.

  6. Hi Grace, I am definitely intrigued by this book. Like you, I have a special fascination with creative/artsy people (so much so that my research is about them and their life story narratives) and I love mythology as well. This sounds like something I would enjoy. Thank you for sharing this. Will pin this in our AWB Pinterest Board. 🙂

    • Thanks! This book was so much fun to read, and I loved the fact that we learned about Cooper and Naverra secondhand; it was interesting to see Maggie’s process as she began to unravel what had happened between them and how it impacted their work. It’s one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year.

  7. Sounds very intriguing.. plus ‘sinister spirits’. I think I might like this one.
    Lynn 😀

  8. This is such an amazing book. I “knew” Terri Windling before reading this, having corresponded with her on her website and through email several times. I had also read several of her excellent non-fiction articles on fantasy, mythology, etc. that are still up on the Endicott Studio site (I think under the Journal for Mythic Arts tab). Anyway, despite my overwhelmingly positive feelings about her and her writing I still didn’t expect to be as swept up in this story as I was when I read it a few years ago.

    I did not consider myself a big fan of Native American folklore nor did I really appreciate the beauty of the desert. As time has went on I’ve come to see the desert as a beautiful place, though I would not want to live there. And Terri taught me with this book that Native American folklore/mythology is every bit as interesting as the European mythology and folkore that I tend to prefer.

    And on top of that this is just one darn good read. I have yet to pick up a copy but one of these days I’m going to have to own this thing. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • I’m jealous! She seems like she would be an interesting person to talk to.

      I was very impressed with this book; I’ve always been intrigued by Native American folklore even though I haven’t fully explored it. I think it’s neat the way that Windling is able to mix different traditions of folklore in order to come up with something so unique and magical. I loved this book, and I was caught up by both the story itself and the writing style.

      • Not surprising that you mentioned de Lint because she and him have worked together and if I remember correctly are part of the group that really brought together the whole mythic fiction movement.

        • I just wish that it wasn’t such a small subgenre; I’m deliberately taking my time reading the rest of Charles de Lint’s books because I’ll feel sad when I’ve finished them all.

          • Me too! Fortunately I still have many de Lint novels yet to read.

            • Do you know of any other similar authors, by chance?

              • Not in particular like this. Patricia A. McKillip’s later novels have some of this flavor but her work is uniquely her own (and quite good). I’d recommend In the Forests of Serre or Ombria in Shadow to start. Gaiman’s Stardust and Neverwhere and American Gods and Anansi Boys have mythology/folklore woven into them but again it is not the same as this. Anansi Boys might be the closest of his works.

                Susanna Clarke’s short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu leans more towards the fairy tale but is a very good set of stories.

                • Thanks for the recommendations! I just finished Patricia McKillip’s “Winter Rose” and will be posting a review on it within the next couple days. Her books have a fairy-tale feel to them which I enjoy tremendously.

  9. A poetic fantasy…sounds interesting. You made a very mysterious review, leaving us with curiosity about the book.

    • It’s really neat because the main character pieces together what’s going on based on snippets of poems and letters, paired with her own observations and encounters in the desert.

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