By Sara Pennypacker
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 978 0 00 812409 0
You shouldn’t, of course, judge a book by its cover, but the publishers have given award-winning author Sara Pennypacker’s new YA novel such a stunning jacket that if the story weren’t very special, readers would be justified in their disappointment.
But there is no need to worry. Pax is a beautifully written and compelling novel about a boy and a fox. And if there is any justice in the book world, it is destined to become a classic read by generations of young readers alongside Black Beauty, Watership Down and Tarka the Otter.
Peter, the boy, and Pax, the fox, have been inseparable since Peter rescued Pax as a baby after his its mother was killed and its brothers and sisters died of starvation. Pax has relied on Peter for five years, and the two have built a very strong bond.
The connection between a child and an animal can be very strong, but unfortunately it can’t last forever, and there are devastating changes around the corner for the pair.
The unnamed country where Peter lives is currently at war, and his father signs up to join the military. Peter has no mother, and the only relative who can take care of him during his father’s absence is his grandfather who lives hundreds of kilometres away from them.
There is no place for Pax in Peter’s new life. The best thing to do would be to return it to the wild, and Pennypacker opens her story with the heartbreaking scene of Peter and his father taking Pax deep into the countryside and leaving him there.
But when Peter moves in with his grandfather, he is consumed with guilt. Almost immediately, he packs a bag, and sets off, despite the war, to go back and find Pax. Spurred on by loyalty, love and grief, Peter must, at all costs, find his best friend and make amends for abandoning him.
Throughout the story, the author alternates perspectives between what is happening to the boy and what is happening to the fox. And in the latter, she excels.
Depicting an animal in words is a precarious task that can end up being oversentimental. It takes a special writer to give voice to an animal but still treat it with respect. With Pax, only occasionally might the reader get the feeling that Pennypacker chooses the needs of her story over the reality of depicting a wild animal.
Both boy and fox encounter characters and a grim reality in their search for each other. Lofty issues are tackled and emotions are wrung out to dry. Pax is, quite simply, a masterpiece, deserving the widest possible readership and highest praise. Just look at that cover, and get ready to be amazed and moved.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com