PAX is the type of book I would have stayed away from as a young reader. My 4th grade teacher read WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS to my class and it almost turned me away from reading. It ruined animal books for me. My family did not have any pets and looking back, I wonder if part of the reason was because we were a sensitive bunch, and hated the thought of losing them someday. Sensitive readers, like me, will have a difficult time with PAX.
Peter rescued Pax as a kit and the two have been inseparable ever since. That is, until Peter’s father heads off to war and makes Peter release Pax back into the wild before going to live with his grandfather. Shortly after arriving at his grandfather’s house, Peter finds a photograph of his father as a boy. In the photo, his father is with a pet dog Peter never knew he had. His grandfather tells him they were “inseparable.” Filled with anger and guilt for abandoning Pax when he knew it was wrong, Peter leaves his grandfather’s house in the middle of the night and starts out on a journey to get Pax back.
PAX is a difficult book to digest because it is filled with such visceral, raw, emotion-packed scenes. Pennypacker leaves nothing to the imagination. A pair of foxes are brutally and graphically slain, right in front of the reader’s eyes. Another animal loses an appendage in a terrible way and that same appendage reappears as the story nears its conclusion. Blood scatters the landscape and a creepy fear permeates many of Peter’s scenes with Vola, an isolationist that rescues Peter after he suffers a major (and also graphic) setback on his journey. If you struggled through Kathi Appelt’s THE UNDERNEATH, which is the most recent comparable I can think of, you will struggle with many of the images in PAX.
The chapters alternate from Pax’s point of view to Peter’s point of view. Pax’s chapters are filled with wonder and confusion, as he discovers things about the wild and as he learns more about the behavior of humans. Not all humans are like his boy Peter. As the bond between he and Bristle and Runt grows stronger, the happy reunion readers may hope for becomes less likely. Pennypacker’s writing is best in these scenes with Pax. Peter’s chapters are filled with anxiety and dread as he suffers setback after setback in his journey to find Pax. Vola is a fascinating character. If Pennypacker had any interest in centering a prequel around her, I believe it would find some interested readers.
If I had one small gripe with PAX it is that Pennypacker’s themes often seem a bit heavy handed and spelled out for the reader. War is bad. Humans ruin everything. What were the humans even fighting for? What was the war about? By keeping these issues vague, Pennypacker turns them into statements instead of plot points. The political statements Pennypacker seems to be making are very overt and sometimes they held me back from enjoying the story unfolding or investing in the characters.
Perhaps a more subtle theme in the story is the loss of the family unit:
"It hadn't happened for several years, but sometimes at the end of the day, his humans would sit together on his boy's nest. The father would lay a hard box, flat and thin and made of many layers of paper, across his lap. Paper, like Pax's own bedding, but not shredded, and with many marks. His humans would peel these layers, one by one, and study them. Pax remembered that his humans were most linked together on those evenings, and with their harmony he could let down his guard."
When Peter chooses to make right his mistake of leaving Pax in the woods, he's doing more than going against his father. He is going against what his father stands for. He is realizing that sometimes, the apple does fall far from the tree. He recognizes the mistake his father made when he was a boy and vows to not make the same mistake. Which makes PAX above all, despite the heart-breaking, gut-wrenching narrative, a story of hope. Hope for a more harmonious future.