“The plain truth can be the hardest thing to see when it’s about yourself. If you don’t want to know the truth, you’ll do anything to disguise it.”
Many of my growing up years were spent reading books about animals, animal rescuers, and heroic pets who saved their humans. I pored over My Side of The Mountain, Old Yeller, Where The Red Fern Grows…gah, I love stories with animal characters. So when I discovered Pax by Sara Pennypacker, I was so excited to read it! The beautiful illustrations and the dual perspectives lended by a boy and his fox sold me instantly.
The writing style was perfect. Not too flowery, easy to grasp, but not dumbed down like many of today’s middle grade books. The author raised the bar on MG literature. As I read, it reminded me of the Chronicles of Narnia – not just children can read it, but adults too. It was refreshing.
That being said, one of the cons was that the setting confused me. I had so many questions about the world Pax and Peter live in. Peter played baseball. So did he live in the US? And when? There was a war going on, but it seemed more like a civil war than on foreign ground – and for most of the book, no one is afraid of how close the battle seems to be. The few clues I could gather to piece together a timeframe were packaged cheese sticks, bus drivers and cars. Whether the story was set in an alternate timeline or a near-future one, I couldn’t tell. I don’t believe pinpointing the exact year is important, but it was one of the things that I might have liked to know.
Vola, one of the people Peter meets on his journey who becomes very important to him, is retired military with PTSD. She is a fascinating, bittersweet type of character, one you can’t help but want to know more about. At one point in the story she likened herself to a grenade, and you come to realize she wasn’t just some hermit in the woods. She had a story – a dark, sad one with a hopeful undertone. She sounded like a soldier who might have fought in WWII. (And that was part of what confused me about the timeline because it felt so much like post-World War except that there was another war happening again.) One of her many profound quotes: Do you think anyone in the history of this world ever set out to fight for the wrong side? She’s philosophical, and she prompted Peter to think for himself instead of answering all of his questions for him. I liked how everything she said was thought-provoking, even if I didn’t agree at times.
Aside from Vola, the topic of war in Pax felt very one-sided for me. War is something which shouldn’t be taken lightly, and Pennypacker decently portrayed the more dismal side of it. War is danger, risk, courage, sacrifice. But war is not – should not – be purposeless. One of the messages in the book is the consequence of fighting. We are told that war is coming and it will annihilate everything in its path because the “war-sick” think of nothing but fighting and destroying. We are constantly reminded in the book that “the truth must be told” about war. However, the message was pushed so much that I got the feeling that the reader was supposed to believe all fighting is meaningless. Should the truth about the sacrifice and struggles of war be told? A million times yes. But it should also be told that sacrifice is rarely in vain. Our soldiers don’t need condemnation for choosing to fight. Not everyone comes home scarred. Not every fight is meaningless. But here, that’s how it felt. That kind of one-sidedness just didn’t sit right with me, especially in a story geared toward younger minds.
Finally, the ending. I expected something like it, but…but…not like that. I didn’t like how it ended. Few animal stories end happily. You open a book about an animal expecting to be crushed in the end. But this one? I was a little sad, but hardly crushed. There was an ungrateful, rushed feel to how the book ended. It let me down a bit. Aside from the ending and the lack of military support, this was an enjoyable read.
My rating: 4 Stars
Violence, death, coping with grief, and reoccurring use of a mild expletive in Creole. Recommended for 12+, and family discussion is advisable.