Sometimes you need a book to escape into—a book with a mythology to get lost in and an epic conflict to stand as an allegory for the modern world. Other times you need a quiet book, one that hooks you with the simplicity of its language before it devastates you with its bittersweet insight. Sara Pennypacker’s Pax, about a boy and his fox separated by war, is a masterful ‘quiet’ book.
Orphaned and close to death, Pax was rescued by his human, Peter, when the boy was still grieving the sudden death of his mother. Boy and fox have been inseparable ever since. Pax knows his boy’s looks and his scents, his emotions and his habits. So when the boy’s father drives away, leaving Pax alone by the side of the road, he knows his boy will be back soon. He just needs to wait.
Peter knows it’s a mistake. He didn’t want to do it, but his father made him. His father who’s gone to join the hazy war threatening the edges of the novel, dumping Peter with his grandfather. No sooner is he settled at his grandfather’s house than he’s sneaking out of it to find his fox and return home—both of which lie in the path of the oncoming enemy.
Told in alternating chapters, the novel follows Pax and Peter as their quest to return to one another takes them to unexpected places. Peter’s is cut short by a broken ankle that forces him to recuperate at a farm owned by the reclusive Vola. A veteran of the last war with a prosthetic leg and a talent for woodworking, Vola has her own demons, and much to show Peter about facing up to his own. Pennypacker’s power of suggestion is strong, as she illustrates Peter’s struggle with his darkest fears, without ever fully voicing them. It feels true to a young character who has experienced a trauma he can scarcely bear to think about, let alone put it into words, since words are the things that make fears into truths (or so a child often worries).
Meanwhile, Pax’s awe at the natural world is at odds with his inability to survive in the wild. He tentatively befriends a pair of feral foxes, and through them realizes how little he knows about being a fox. Here Pennypacker succeeds in translating the complexity of fox communication—scent, gesture, vocalizations, even telepathic image transfer—into a beautiful series of interactions that animate the foxes and describes their deepening bond.
All the while, war is marching closer. Pax can feel his boy nearing, just as Peter knows his fox is still alive. Pennypacker’s beautiful prose draws them closer physically, even as it pulls them further from the boy and the fox who were once so sure of their bond. Pax cuts right to the heart of growing up and the difficult, yet inevitable process of growing into who we’re meant to be; ultimately reminding us that no journey can, or should, leave its travelers unchanged.