Pax – Sara Pennypacker (Balzer + Bray, 2016)
I was really excited about this book when I first heard about it. A modern day animal story, an adventure and a journey to reunite between a boy and his fox. I expected something like The Incredible Journey or The Trumpet of the Swan. I hadn’t read Sara Pennypacker before but I love Jon Klassen’s illustrations. With such high expectations, I turned out to be disappointed.
Overall, I wanted more from Pax. I wanted more of Klassen’s illustrations (there really aren’t that many and they aren’t integrated much into the story). I wanted more drama and adventure. I wanted more to be explained.
The book begins with twelve-year-old Peter and his pet fox, Pax, who he has raised from a small kit. When Peter’s father enlists to fight in the war, Peter is sent to live with his grandfather and his father forces him to release Pax into the wild. Peter quickly feels guilty about betraying Pax in this way. Knowing Pax has never lived in the wild and lacks the necessary survival skills, Peter sets out to find him.
Vola studied Peter as if she were seeing him for the first time. “So which is it? You going back for your home or for your pet?”
“They’re the same thing,” Peter said, the answer sudden and sure, although a surprise to him.
So far, so good, but when Peter breaks his ankle both his journey and the plot are waylaid. Unable to travel, Peter stumbles across a woman living alone in the woods. Vola is hiding out from society but humanity bursts in on her in the form of Peter. There’s lot of potential here and Vola is an interesting character but this section really drags on too long. The drama of the novel is Peter’s journey to find Pax but a large chunk of it stagnates while he hangs out with Vola and learns life lessons.
The chapters from Peter’s perspective are balanced by chapters from Pax’s perspective. Left alone in the wild for the first time, Pax struggles to survive. He meets some other foxes, some who accept him and some who don’t. Pennypacker does well in her depictions of the foxes and their interactions. They’re animals and she doesn’t attempt to overly anthropomorphize them (at least not more so than a book about their adventures already does). The dialogue between then is brief and animalistic and their actions seem to make sense from a fox perspective. The writing here is strong and visceral and Pennypacker chooses her words well. Her descriptions are mostly succinct but she evokes the wild in all its fear and beauty well.I probably could have read a story that was just about Pax’s adventures in the wild.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the novel for me was that I had no idea when or where we were supposed to be. A war taking place and getting ever closer to Peter and Pax is at the centre of this novel. At the beginning, I assumed this was World War II and that the novel was set in England. As the story progressed, it seemed like the setting was more modern – Peter and the people around him seem to be living in the present day. So what war is this? I’m left to assume this is some imaginary war that could take place in the future in North America but I’m not sure what the point of making up a war is. There are plenty of real wars in the world, both now and in the past. There’s nothing in the story itself that needs to be set in the 21st century. Or if Pennypacker did desire a modern day setting, again, there are plenty of current wars to choose from.
The topic of war is actually one of the most problematic aspects of the novel. Turns out, this isn’t a story about a boy and his animal and the adventure they have while making their way back to each other. No, this is a story about how terrible war is. And while that could be a worthwhile topic, Pennypacker is extremely heavy-handed in her message. There’s no subtlety, there’s no discussion of why people might view war as necessary. There’s one small reference to water being at the centre of this war and, seeing as that is something I could imagine people fighting over in the future, there’s a missed opportunity to offer any sort of balance. War is bad and that message is beaten over our heads for most of the book.
While reading Pax, I was also reading A Separate Peace, a young adult novel set during the Second World War. The message about war in A Separate Peace was much more subtle (and therefore more powerful, I found) and offered a sharp contrast to Pennypacker’s clumsy effort.