I thought it might be useful to start trying to put out a longer and shorter Read of the Week for this blog, especially as there are so many titles that I need to catch up with! Borrowing is going well at the library but we still have the problem of the same books going out all the time, which is such a shame when there are so many different and wonderful titles that aren’t getting a look-in with some of our older pupils.
So I will kick off this week with Pax, by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen, and published by HarperCollins Children’s Books.
I’ve come a little late to this masterpiece. I bought it for the library last school year and meant to read it straight away but I held back for the sole reason that I find sad books involving animals and children hard to read because, inevitably, I cry. There are many of Michael Morpurgo’s books that I haven’t read yet precisely for that reason. And when my version has the following quote on the cover: “A heart-wrenching masterpiece” (Guardian) I know I’m doomed to be toting tissues everywhere.
Still, I knew I was desperate to read this and so I stiffened my upper lip at the weekend and dived straight in.
What it’s about:
Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a cub. But when Peter is forced to return his fox to the wild his world is torn apart. Despite encroaching war, and the three hundred miles between them, Peter sets out to find his fox. Meanwhile, Pax waits hopefully for his boy.
I was sitting in a Dr’s waiting room as I read the first few chapters of this book and I was terrified that I was going to start crying when Pax is confused and frightened as he sees his boy disappear in the car, having abandoned him in the forest. My heart couldn’t break any more from that point onwards, unless one of them died, so I carried on reading.
The book, which is told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax, develops into the typical Quest story, when told from Peter’s perspective – he sets out on a journey of 300 miles to find his fox. From Pax’s viewpoint, it’s a tale of rebirth: ironically, of Pax becoming the animal he was born to be, rather than the domesticated pet he was raised as.
What is interesting, though, is how Sara Pennypacker breaks the ‘rule’ of children’s stories of getting rid of the adults at the start. She gets rid of the father and grandfather for a few chapters when Peter runs away but then becomes injured and must rely on the help and kindness of Vola, a hermit of a woman, to become strong and able enough to travel again.
Most of his Peter’s story occurs during the time in which he lives with her. Perhaps she doesn’t count as a ‘typical’ adult because she has shunned the world to live in isolation but she still issues rules and conditions, which he must adhere to if he wants to continue on his quest. However, Peter also has a beneficial effect on Vola. The two are both battling intense emotions and each of them needs the other to become stronger. Both take it in turns to be both teacher and student so the usual adult-child relationship is subverted.
Pax, on the other hand, learns quickly how to survive in the wild: he has to. His natural instincts kick in after a few days and he makes friends with other foxes in a way that he never knew was possible. Hunting for his own food, relying on his senses of smell and hearing empower him and thrill him in a way that he never knew was possible.
As Peter deals with his at times overwhelming emotions, which he has tried for years to suppress, Pax deals with the daily threats and demands of surviving in the wild, all the while hoping for his boy’s return. There is a satisfying feel to these parallel storylines, although more sadness does weave its way through events. This is the normal sadness of living that we all endure but if you’re feeling a little emotional or delicate, it might hit you as you read. Though, having known children’s responses to sad books, they seem more able to cope with it than adults.
I felt I learned so much from reading this book. I learned how a young boy tries to deal with grief and guilt on his own, when the adults just cannot find the strength to be there for him. I’ve seen how an adult can try, over and over again, to make up for the wrongs they’ve done in life yet never feel it’s enough. I’ve seen how both a child and an adult can have amazing insight into each other’s mind and help each other, sometimes through words but, more often, through small acts of kindness. I’ve felt despair at the human world as it fights a futile battle (which the foxes call the ‘war-sick’). And I’ve understood the basic but strong loyalty of animals to each other as they create and protect their own families.
One message leaped out of the pages, and I’ve been talking to everyone about it since reading the book. It is conveyed around two-thirds of the way through, when Peter and Vola are having one of their talks, which are so illuminating and comforting to the reader, if nothing else! Peter is explaining to Vola how he can sense how Pax is doing – that he would have known already if his beloved fox had died. ‘He held his breath, hearing how crazy it sounded.’
Vola tells Peter that he is lucky to have experienced ‘two but not two’ – which is a Buddhist concept. I’ll let her (or Pennypacker!) explain it:
‘Non-duality. It’s about oneness, about how things that seem to be separate are really connected to one another. There are no separations… This is not just a piece of wood. This is also the clouds that brought the rain that watered the tree, and the birds that nested in it and the squirrels that fed on its nuts. It is also the food my grandparents fed me that made me strong enough to cut the tree, and it’s the steel in the axe I used. And it’s how you know your fox, which allowed you to carve him yesterday [in wood]. And it’s the story you will tell your children when you give this to them. All these things are separate but also one, inseparable.’
This is one of the biggest messages I have taken from this marvellous book and it is something that will stay with me for a long time after reading it.
Please do read Pax.