Read Papmambook's teenage authors' review of Pax, a novel by American writer Sara Pennypacker [most recent English edition: Balzer + Bray, 2019. ISBN 9780062377029]. It is the story of an unusual friendship between a boy and a fox, who are forced to separate because of a war and strive to reunite against all odds.
Polina Andreeva, 14
There are tall firs growing near my sports school. Though there are just a few trees, there are enough of them that an owl lives there without fear of people. Its coloring is easy to confuse with that of the tree trunks, so ordinary passers-by are unlikely to notice this miracle. From up in the tree, the owl watches what’s happening down below very closely, occasionally trading in its patrol for daytime sleep. Sometimes, on a warm clear day, the owl comes out from the darkness of the conifers’ branches to bask in the sun. The bird exudes magic, though one might say there’s nothing unusual in it. Maybe it’s just because I rarely have a chance to see such animals so close up. But I still think that this owl has flown in from some fairytale. The same is true of Sara Pennypacker’s book Pax—all the events could have happened in the real world, but there’s this sense of a fairytale that has to have a happy end. Or does it?
Pax is a book about friendship and trust. There is a unique connection between the main characters—the boy and the fox—that is impossible to explain from a logical point of view, and one wouldn’t really want to anyway. They are one and the same, more than an owner and a pet, more than friends. The author calls this phenomenon “two but not two.”
“The kit had seen a bird and had strained against the leash, trembling as though electrified. And Peter had seen the bird through Pax’s eyes—the miraculous lightning flight, the impossible freedom and speed. He’d felt his own skin thrill in full-body shivers, and his own shoulders burn as though yearning for wings.”
At first Peter didn’t fully understand what Pax meant to him. Because of that and other circumstances, he left his fox in forest. Still, thanks to their connection, he felt everything Pax experienced and understood that he had to come back. The fox waited for him and believed the boy would return.
Peter and Pax search for each other throughout the story. They both go on dangerous journeys and take risks. They go forward, through the trees branching like capillaries, through the thorns of shrubs grasping for them with their tenacious fingers, along flowering fields and meadows. They go forward to where the sun rises and where their hearts call them. This journey changes both of them, forcing them to grow. But despite the dramatic internal changes their connection is never interrupted.
I was stunned at how the author was able to speak in such simple language on such complex topics. For example, this is a book about the meaninglessness of war. We don’t know who is fighting against whom, why, or for what. The war separates the boy and the fox, adds obstacles to their way. One wise fox calls war “a human sickness,” and I agree with him. But at the same time the author doesn’t give her own judgments on the war. She just shows it to us, and it is up to us to draw conclusions.
Thanks to Pax, I was able to see the world through the eyes of a little fox. The story is told sometimes by Peter, sometimes by Pax. Of course it’s fictional, but many things in it are based on real facts. Sara Pennypacker wrote in the afterword:
“Red foxes. The more I learned about them, the more I admired them and the more determined I became to portray them with respect.” This author’s love for foxes shines through the book and after reading I wanted to know more about them.
I also want to mention the very successful design of the book, which is illustrated by Jon Klassen. First of all, the pictures are great. This is one of those books where your ideas as a reader about characters and events completely match with the artist’s view. And second, if you open the book and remove the dust jacket, you see a wonderful picture: the boy and the little fox running towards each other. Two but not two.
Alexandra Dvoretskaya, 14
Lovebirds. A species of parrots that, if we’re being honest, is unlikely to actually die of a broken heart. These are birds of a flock that need some socializing, nothing more. Can we really compare them to those that can’t imagine their lives without one another? Isn’t it something greater—when two feel as one, an indivisible whole?
People and foxes are “birds” of a different feather. For them, family is not just a natural instinct. Their family is not based on simple ties of kinship. Family is trust, a source of support in life, a place where each member can come to find encouragement and heal life’s wounds. But family is also a fragile system that is easily destroyed by lies and a lack of understanding.
Peter. A boy alone despite having a living father and grandfather. His grandfather is a loner, he needs no one. Peter’s father thought he had found his partner for life. Unfortunately, life can be short. Without his only beloved, he wastes away from grief. His soul crumbles, leaving only a hardened parent along with a son that needs a family. For Peter’s father, the start of the war may be less of a tragedy and more of a chance to save him from himself. But in war it’s not only those who fight that suffer—it’s also defenseless children, old people, animals. “The war-sick,” that’s the simple and honest way foxes call people, who bring destruction upon everyone.
With the start of the war, each life changes. And so Peter has to part with what he finds most dear.
That day, Peter’s father stops the car in the forest, as though the boy and the fox are out for a regular walk, just out to play a familiar game by the wild forest. The father is serious as always, but the boy is crying for some reason. The game begins. A plastic soldier, the fox’s favorite toy, goes flying into the thicket. The fox runs after it. Then he waits for the boy to come, to continue the game. But the boy doesn’t come. And the car speeds away.
What can be done to return what is lost in a moment of passing weakness? Peter betrayed his fox, banished a part of his own soul. He left the animal that had grown up in his home in the unfamiliar forest. Left Pax, the fox called “peace.” This fox had once lost his own family, but he wasn’t left alone. He had a boy that must come back for him.
Will the boy ever come? Sometimes life itself becomes an obstacle to reunion. No matter how Peter hurries to him, he won’t get there in time. It seems as though fate itself has set trials in their path: a broken leg, the war, blocked roads…
When the war comes, the fates of ordinary people and animals lose their meaning. Only victory matters. The “war-sick” follow orders, they don’t have time to think. They are always on the “right” side. To promise not to kill when you choose to leave for war is dishonest. There are those who will believe you. It is dishonest, too, to lie about the place where the fox will be safe. But the little toy soldier has been thrown, the war has started, and there’s no safe place for animals or people.
War. People who don’t know each other try to kill each other with any means possible. No one asks why or what for. Because they have to. Because each of them is on the right side. That’s the meaning of war...or rather, it’s meaninglessness.
Soldiers in the real war aren’t plastic—they’re living people. The “war-sick.” In fulfilling their work, their duty, they forget what it is to simply live. They forget that they once loved, they forget their dreams. And when they return from the war, they cannot forgive themselves for what they’ve done.
War turns everything living to something dead, mangled, unable to return to normal life. The survivors are traumatized forever, because you cannot heal a wound in the spirit, cannot forget those you’ve killed. And it doesn’t matter that you were just following orders.
To return to the one you’ve cast out, left, abandoned—it’s impossible. No one can believe blindly and love and wait eternally. The heart seeks warmth and the body has its own needs. The betrayed half will sooner or later become whole again, with someone else. Someone who doesn’t throw the soldier into the forest. Someone who doesn’t leave.
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Cover image: harpercollins.com
The reviews were originally written in 2018