BOC staff book group will be reading PAX by Sara Pennypacker on Thursday 8th March 2018 12 – 1 pm in Committee Room 1.
‘I slowly made my way through this book and I wanted it to last forever, because it was simply the most calming and beautiful thing I have ever read’ (The Guardian)
Compelling, heartrending story of boy and fox in dystopia. (Commonsencemedia.org)
Foxes are fable animals: Their fur carries the electric charge of literary history. As with cats, their faces suggest they have no need of us, and in literature they have all the power that goes with independence.
The novel is told through alternating chapters, with one strand following 12-year-old Peter and the other Pax, as each grows wilder and tougher. After the death of his mother, we learn, Peter had rescued a baby fox from the cold and reared it as a pet and friend. When his father enlists in an unspecified war (“It’s heading for our town. They’ll take the river”), Peter is sent to live with his grandfather, and Pax is sent into the wild, the car speeding away as he watches in bewilderment.
In the opening chapters Peter rebels, slipping out in the night to walk 200 miles back to the spot where Pax was released. What follows is, structurally, a classic quest narrative; Peter walks through dark woods both literally and metaphorically, breaks his foot, encounters characters who help or threaten him. The most vivid of these is Vola, a female war veteran with a prosthetic leg who takes Peter in, and together they face down their own traumas: the suffering of war, physical pain and inherited anger. What makes the book truly remarkable are two things: the quality of Pennypacker’s prose, which is sharp and restless and vulpine, and the pull of the love between Peter and Pax.
There are resonances in this love of Katherine Applegate’s Newbery Medal-winning “The One and Only Ivan,” which shares the intimate use of the animal voice. “Pax” also offers a meditation on the bond between children and animals, and how the longing for closeness to the animal world shapes childhood: the desire to touch, to squeeze, to be loyal to something as familiar and as unknowable as a pet.
Of course, for a writer to give voice to an animal is to purport to offer up a secret, and the difficulty becomes how to tell it without shading into cuteness. Many writers, even Kipling, have failed, in books in which the animal becomes the mouthpiece for the moral. Like Applegate and E. B. White before her, Pennypacker succeeds. In an author’s note, she explains that “fox communication is a complex system of vocalization, gesture, scent and expression. The ‘dialogue’ in italics in Pax’s chapters attempts to translate their eloquent language.” Pennypacker, the author of several well-regarded books for children, including the “Clementine” early chapter-book series, uses the chapters in which Pax speaks to deliver something more, too: a sense of enchantment in a landscape freshly discovered, as Pax explores the natural world for the first time in the company of feral foxes. “Pax” is not comparable tonally to “Charlotte’s Web” — it has less irony and wit and a less insouciant protagonist — but Pennypacker does share White’s resistance to sentimentality, offering in its place a pragmatic kind of awe. White wrote that he “always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even one were to be lost.” In this aspect, Pennypacker, with “Pax,” may be his heir.
The book is illustrated by the Caldecott Medal winner Jon Klassen, whose style is a perfect fit. His sharpness of line maps onto the jagged, sharp-edged quality of growing up, which Peter must do. In the end, Peter builds himself back up from scratches and mistakes, piecemeal, and ends the journey braver and bolder and wiser than he began it. “Pax” the book is like Pax the fox: half wild and wholly beautiful.
By Sara Pennypacker
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
276 pp. Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins Publishers. $16.99. (Middle grade; ages 8 to 12)
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