Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Review: Pax

I rented Pax by Sara Pennypacker from the library to have an audio book on hand for J's visit. He's 8, and the book's minimum recommended age is the same. As a kids books, it starts off sad and heavy, and stays that way for a good chunk of time. While J enjoyed listening to it, this book would almost certainly be a better match for an older kid. As an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and best of all, it left me trying to untangle what I just read heard. I'd like to do some of that untangling in this post, but let me cover a couple more points before I delve into spoilers.

Pax tells its story in alternating chapters, one from Peter's point of view, and the other from his fox Pax's perspective. This makes for a serious challenge: how does a fox tell his story? Pennypacker does this brilliantly, putting us in Pax's world of scents, instinct and other fox-like behavior. I'm sure she took a few liberties, but still, it's quite impressive how she manages to let us join the skulk. If you're an animal lover, you'll relish this chance to see the world from this perspective. Even if you're not a fan of pets (like, uh, myself), you can't help but appreciate the bond that Pennypacker has constructed between Peter and Pax.

Pennypacker doesn't shy away from having her characters encounter death, war and other difficult themes. This is heavy stuff. Unlike, say the The Hunger Games though, I think these concepts are treated in a thoughtful and mature way. When I started the book, I detected a sort of Hatchet feel to it. That is, it had a youth who found himself having to decode and conquer an adult situation. But while Hatchet focused almost exclusively on having a boy learn to physically survive, Pennypacker adds to this an emphasis on emotional survival. It's an audacious goal, but one I think she pulled off.


As the book closes, I was truly shocked to see that it started as it opened: with Peter sending Pax off to the wilderness. In my mind, this clearly cements that Pennypacker was after more than a syrupy kids book about a boy reuniting with his lost fox. As I said above, this is heavy stuff. But what's it all mean? Well, here's my take.

First off, Pax is a story about the search for truth. But it's even deeper than that: in many respects the characters need to first discover that they need to search in the first place. It brings to mind this classic joke:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

For Peter and Pax, the first step is to learn that there's such a thing as water. Pax has the whole natural world opened to him, one that he never new existed. And Peter needs to learn to cope with the loss of his mother, and his fear of turning into his father. Both Peter and Pax need to figure out what's true, even if it's small victories such as Peter realizing that Baseball is peace, for Pax to discover 'flying.' Of course, it's not just Peter and Pax who are on the search for truth. Vola's on the same journey, learning how to cope with her past. Even Bristle and Runt have lessons to learn, such as the lesson that not all humans are evil.

As Vola reminds Peter time and again, nobody can tell him what his truths are. He needs to search them out himself.

While this may be true, I think another key theme in the book has to do with the role of a teacher. Vola is clearly Peter's teacher, showing him not only how to master his physical situation, but imparting many a life lesson. This relationship isn't one way though, as Peter is just as important a teacher to Vola as she is to him. While Pax ultimately needs to learn to hunt by himself, the lessons from Bristle are invaluable to say the least. While it's temping to read this book as a treatise on self-improvement only through self-analysis, I think that's giving it too little credit. Pennypacker is showing us that our best teachers may be our most subtle teachers.

Disability plays an interesting role in the book. Peter, Vola and even Runt all experience the loss of a limb; that can't be a coincidence. I think there's a clue to the meaning of this in how Peter handles his broken leg. He doesn't quit the quest, but instead opts to adapt. The plan was to trudge through the woods to find Pax, and that's what he still plans to do. Disability in this case seems not so much a curse or a blessing, but as a physical manifestation of truth. Runt lost his hind leg. He can't mourn that loss and give up, what he can do is re-learn how to walk. And so it is with Peter: his new truth is that he needs crutches and newfound strength to continue. And so he adapts.

I couldn't help but frame that final scene where Peter once again sends Pax on his way as a moving take on loss. When I tell folks that Shira and I are foster parents, they often remark how they could never fathom having a child in their home, and then letting him or her go. Peter's story, however, speaks to this scenario well. When the book opens, we find that Peter is effectively abandoning Pax. His sense of duty and truth, tells him this is wrong and he goes on a life changing journey to correct this mistake. As the book closes, Peter is letting Pax go because they've both grown and they need to be in different places. It's still sad, but ones the difference between child abandonment and the other is dropping your kid off at college. The latter hurts, but isn't on the same level of devastation that the former is.

Does your kid needs to read a book that tackles loss in such a nuanced and real fashion? Probably not. But the lessons are powerful enough, that you probably should.

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