Skip to main content

Willa of the Wood


Willa of the Wood

There is no I, only we.

These words have been pounded into Willa’s head since she was a small child. The survival of the clan is the only thing that matters. Her people are the Faeran, ancient forest dwellers who once lived in harmony with the woods and the Great Smoky Mountains but now struggle to survive in an uncertain world. Changes are coming to the mountains Willa calls home. Human “day-folk” have been building farms on the land for years, but now a strange new threat is emerging --- the railroad. The workers fell trees by the hundreds and Willa feels each tree’s death as the loss of an old friend; she feels her world dying around her.

Under the leadership of the powerful padaran, the Faeran have been abandoning the old ways and trying to adapt to the new order. Even their ancestral home, their lair built of intertwining living branches managed by wood-witches, is slowly rotting away. Once a wise and powerful people, the Faeran have been pushed to the edge of extinction, forced deep into the mountains and stealing from the day-folk to survive. The message is clear: without their knowledge and traditions, the Faeran will soon cease to exist.

There is no I, only we.

"WILLA OF THE WOOD is one of those rare children’s novels that combines exquisite storytelling with true-to-life challenges and paves the way for discussion of current events."

Willa’s grandmother, her only living relative, works hard to teach Willa the ancient Faeran language, tradition and beliefs, and Willa tries to keep them alive. But she struggles to find her place in the padaran’s new order, which is increasingly brutal and further from Faeran traditions. Her traditional knowledge is threatening to the rest of the clan; as her mamaw reminds her, “Knowing brings death.” One day, Willa discovers a terrible secret that makes her question everything the padaran has told her and everything she has been taught from an early age. A strangely peaceful encounter with a member of the day-folk only increases Willa’s confusion --- what is the true world? The world of fear and survival the padaran says they must fight to live in? Or the beautiful, harmonious existence with the forest that Willa’s grandmother still remembers? Willa wants to practice the old ways like her grandmother but the clan pressures her to accept the padaran’s laws.                                                                

There is no I, only we.

As the chasm between Willa and the rest of the clan grows, their fragile existence begins to crumble and Willa must decide where her loyalties lie --- and what kind of world she wants to create for herself.

Maybe there wasn’t just one way, but many. The earth wasn’t flat or round. It was mountains.

WILLA OF THE WOOD is an engrossing and complex novel. Robert Beatty doesn’t shy away from adult themes, and death figures heavily in the story. The death of Willa’s family is most obvious, but it seems that the world she has known is dying too. The loggers are coming to clear the forest for the railroad; the day-folk are encroaching on Faeran life; the Cherokee, with whom the Faeran have lived in relative peace, are being driven out of their homeland. Most of all, WILLA OF THE WOOD warns about the death of culture. Willa learns the old ways from her grandmother, but the padaran has forbidden the Faeran to speak their language and practice their customs, echoing the actual attempted destruction of Cherokee culture. Environmental conservation is also a strong theme. The Faeran’s shifting world and their struggle to find their way is clearly reminiscent of climate change and the dilemmas it presents. WILLA OF THE WOOD is one of those rare children’s novels that combines exquisite storytelling with true-to-life challenges and paves the way for discussion of current events.

I could not put down WILLA OF THE WOOD. The story gallops along in delightfully descriptive prose; I couldn’t wait to discover more about Willa’s life. Robert Beatty has drawn a masterful portrait of a world just beside and under ours, a world that seems believable, as though a Faeran were hiding behind every tree, just out of sight. Drawing on Celtic mythology, Cherokee stories and American mountain folklore, Beatty creates a vivid tale that echoes real history. The story explores what happens in a society when its people are blinded by fear and latch onto a charismatic leader, even if that leader is guiding them towards their own destruction, and no one seems to realize the danger until it is nearly too late. But WILLA OF THE WOOD is not fatalistic. Young people can triumph in this story, can reclaim their culture and build their own future. WILLA OF THE WOOD is an incredibly timely novel for a generation in need of some hope and encouragement.

In Willa’s words from the Faeran language, Gwen-elen den ulna. “Wherever you’re going, may you walk among the trees.”

Reviewed by Rebecca Hawkins on August 20, 2018

Willa of the Wood
(Willa of the Wood #1)
by Robert Beatty