Book Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker

paxFirst published on 18th June, 2016 in The Star

PAX

Author: Sara Pennypacker

Publisher: Balzer & Bray

THE reason I am leery of stories about pets, or in which humans and animals have close relationships, is because they invariably contain heart-breaking scenes featuring death, separation, cruelty or all three.

The heartbreak occurs early in Pax by Sara Pennypacker. In chapter one, Peter is made to abandon his pet fox, the book’s titular character, at the edge of a wood.

The method employed to distract and leave Pax behind is shockingly cruel, even more so because it is so familiar.

However, we learn that this is not a matter of human whim and fancy. With the country in the midst of war, Peter’s father has enlisted in the army and so, Peter must go live with his grandfather where there is no room for pets.

But Peter and Pax are pragmatic in the face of their separation. The boy sets out to walk the 300 miles back to where he left his pet, while Pax, steadfast in his belief that his human will return for him, just gets on with life.

Pax, which means peace in Latin, is not just the fox’s name, but the story’s holy grail. Each character reaches for it, or their idea of it.

For the fox and his boy, it is what belonging to one another means.

For Peter’s father, it is what he wants for his son and the reason he enlists.

For Vola, the hermit whom Peter meets on his journey, it is what she was, how she was, before the war.

And in a setting that becomes increasingly dark and violent, there are other, unexpected, versions of peace to be found.

The kindness of strangers, the discovery of self, the flowering of hope and the sweetness of new friendships and alliances all help to soften the blow of life with its inevitable sting of death and loss.

If you enjoy books that are works of art and beauty, the hardback edition of Pax, with its deckle-edged pages, is something that will give you much pleasure.

Dark green boards are blind-stamped with leaves, grass and reeds, as well as, on the back board, the shape of a boy running … to meet his fox, foil stamped on the front board in red-gold.

I have just this minute noticed that you are presented with this picture if you hold the book open. Considering how the book ends, it is a sight both joyful and sad.

The book jacket features art by Jon Klassen (of This is Not My Hat fame).

Pax is shown seated amongst trees, surveying a campsite at sunset. The cover’s warm and rusty earth tones and Pax’s pose convey an air of serenity and restfulness.

If it were a painting hanging in a gallery, it would surprise no one to learn that its title was Peace (although what we learn of such a scene in the book is really quite the opposite).

In contrast, Klassen’s black-and-white inside illustrations inside the book have a harsher, rougher edge to them.

The pictures are a combination of smudgy silhouettes and fine details, the thicker, shadowy sweeps of charcoal juxtaposed with delicate lines and shapes.

There is an unexpected and tender beauty in some of the drawings, especially those that portray Pax and the foxes he meets in the wood.

One in particular keeps drawing me back – a picture of Pax curled up and asleep, a smaller fox pressed to his side. The scene portrayed is less cosy, but it may be taken as a portent, or a promise.

Pennypacker’s prose is spare and to the point, with Peter and Pax’s stories told in alternate chapters. Although written in the third person, both the boy and the fox’s voices are strong, their identities made distinct through their observations, attitudes and reactions.

I especially enjoyed reading about Pax’s new life, learning to live in the wild, and his encounters with the other foxes.

After the first chapter of Pax made me blub, I turned to the back and read the final three chapters, just to get the worst over, as it were. As it turns out, the shock of the first chapter was the worst of it.

What follow are journeys of discovery for Peter and Pax, with both travelling a rocky path from ignorance to wisdom, innocence to experience.

Both the fox and his boy learn about the world and about life in the course of their journeys.

What they know by the book’s final pages is the reason the book concludes, not with a fairytale ending, but as it is meant to, with a brave and kind one, and thus, the right and best one too.

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