I just finished Pax by @sarapennypacker @burstofbeaden At the moment I have no words...except for wow...and tears pic.twitter.com/1OoCk4Dm6Q— Margie Myers-Culver (@Loveofxena) February 12, 2016
Thoughts, questions and emotions swirled around in my head. I reached out to an author friend, Victoria J. Coe ( Fenway and Hattie G. P. Putnam's Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House, February 9, 2016) in the form of email conversations. She gave me invaluable insights from an author's perspective.
It became abundantly clear a reread of the book was absolutely necessary. Yesterday I read Pax again, marking specific portions of text and taking written notes for each chapter. Without hesitation it can be said this book will remain in your mind and heart always for reasons each reader brings with them before they read a single word.
The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first. Through the pads of his paws, along his spine, in the sensitive whiskers at his wrists.
These are the first two sentences of many filling the two hundred seventy-six pages following a singular journey taken by the fox, Pax, and his boy, Peter. Beginning with Pax and concluding with Peter we mark the days through their voices in alternating chapters. When the car finally stops, their lives, as they both understand them, will change. So will they.
Five years ago shortly after his mother died in an automobile accident Peter found the fox kit, orphaned and alone; barely alive among his deceased siblings. Now at twelve years old Peter has been ordered by his father to abandon the fox in the wild. Peter has to go live with his grandfather. War is coming to their portion of the country and his father has enlisted.
Peter gets Pax to leave them by playing a game of fetch with a toy soldier. In this game, Pax gets the soldier and waits for Peter to come to him. This time Pax waits and Peter does not come. Pax hears the doors slam shut and the car speed away.
Realizing deep in his being the mistake he made in leaving Pax, Peter does not spend the first night sleeping at his grandfather's home. He is determined to cross the three hundred miles back to the place where Pax was left. After filling his backpack with essential items he leaves that night.
Amidst the preparations for war, evacuations and the growing number of troops in encampments, Peter travels toward Pax as the fox waits for his return. Neither of them is prepared for the events they will endure and the people and the animals they will encounter. They will each do what needs to be done to survive, knowing they must be together.
Readers are introduced to Vola, a war veteran with a prosthetic leg, living alone in the country. Through an accident she and Peter establish a bond which heals and helps them both physically and emotionally. A young vixen, Bristle, her younger brother, Runt and an older fox, Gray, develop a relationship which initially seems unlikely given their histories.
The sense of urgency felt in the first chapter never leaves as the pace continues to quicken and the suspense grows chapter by chapter. Days of separation between the fox and his boy turn into one week and then two. Exquisitely woven into their stories are themes of generational parental anger, grief, the definition of family, the art of comprise, forgiveness, what is done for the sake of love and the effects of war (before, during and after) on everyone and everything. The conclusion will stun you. You will continue to have questions. You will come to understand you have read perfection.
For anyone, at any age, who has felt the unbreakable tie with an animal, the first chapter written by Sara Pennypacker will, I believe, cause them to pause. It will grip you and hold fast. Then you will take huge gulps of the story at a time compelled by defining episodes from the past blended into the present narrative.
Pennypacker's writing is explicit and elegant. Our minds are held to the exact place, time, emotions and movements of the characters. Portrayals of Pax's days are true to life, supported by research and the counsel of a biologist and wildlife tracker specializing in the red fox. The conversations between Peter and his grandfather, father and Vola are realistically heartrending and heartwarming. Personally after reading the thoughts of Pax and Peter I found myself cheering for them, wanting to embrace them for their courage and loyalty. Here are some sample passages.
When his paws were cleaned, he curled them up under his chest to wait. The morning air pulsed with the noises of spring. The long night before, they had alarmed Pax. The blackness had quivered with the rustle of night prowlers, and even the sounds of the trees themselves---leaves unfurling, sap coursing up new wood, the tiny cracklings of expanding bark---had startled him over and over as he waited for Peter to return.
Pax had been born with the same instinct as well, but distrust is no match for kindness administered consistently and unmeasured, especially in creatures new to the world.
"I have more than everything I need." Vola sat. "I have peace here.
"Because it's so quiet?"
"No. Because I am exactly where I should be, doing exactly what I should be doing. That is peace. Eat."
At that, Peter felt suddenly exhausted, as if he'd been holding himself rigid for years. He had been on his own for so long.
Vola studied him. "Oneness is always growing in the world, boy. Two but not two. It's always there, connecting its roots, humming. I can't be a part of it---that's the price I pay for taking myself away. But you can be. You can vibrate with its heartbeat. You may be on your own. But you won't be alone.
The richness of the limited color palette selected by artist Jon Klassen for the dust jacket is earthy and warm like the smell of fur kissed by the sun. (I am seriously thinking of buying another copy just so I can frame the entire image revealed when opening the jacket.) Underneath the book case is a deep forest green with embossed grasses, flowers, Peter and Pax. The boy is running from the back, left, to the fox on the front that is leaping to him. Only Pax and the text are filled with copper-colored foil.
Within the body of the book Klassen has meticulously placed eloquent black and white images; some single pages, others smaller insets and two spanning double pages. These illustrations illuminate particular and integral portions of the story. Each of the chapter numbers is placed inside either a small black picture of the head of Pax or Peter. One of my favorite illustrations is of Pax and Runt curled together in sleep. There is another I love but...
Pax written by Sara Pennypacker with illustrations by Jon Klassen is one of those novels you read that will leave a mark on your memory. Years later you will not forget how you felt when you finished it, even if you don't recall all the details. You will remember that this book made you think, ask questions and deeply care for the characters. And...you will read it more than once.
If you desire to learn more about Sara Pennypacker and Jon Klassen please follow the links attached to their names to access their website (Tumblr) pages. At the publisher's website you can read an excerpt from the book. A website dedicated to the book has been created. Here is a link to a discussion guide perfect for group readings or individuals who wish to expand their thinking. There have been numerous interviews with Sara Pennypacker about Pax; Publishers Weekly Cover Reveal: Pax, Publishers Weekly Pennypacker Supports New Novel at Fall Regionals, NPR All Things Considered Left To Fend For Himself, 'Pax' The Fox Must Find His Human Friend, and School Library Journal War Through a Child's---and a Fox's---Eyes: Sara Pennypacker on Her New Novel, Pax|Under the Covers.
UPDATE: Jon Klassen stopped at Brightly: Portraying Pax in Pencil: A Q & A with Illustrator Jon Klassento talk about creating the artwork for Pax.