Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favorite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.
Okay, so I’ll admit right from the beginning, this book has me feeling all sorts of conflicted.
When I finished reading the book, which definitely kept me riveted the whole time, the tension was high in just the rights spots and the story was, for the most part, well-paced, I was feeling high on the story for sure.
As I’ve let the story ruminate in my thoughts for a couple of days, there has definitely been a sifting of elements into a delicious pile I’d like to partake of again and a scraps pile I could’ve done without.
First, the words. Pennypacker, as always, did not disappoint in the prose category. There was never any doubt that I would fall in love with her words and they would make me FEEL something.
The characters. I loved Peter. I could feel that he’d had a tough life and he wasn’t close with his father. The things he’d learned from him were the things he hated most about himself. His connection with Pax was real and I turned the pages hoping he would make his way back to him.
I even really liked Vola. She was one of those characters who were so rough around the edges that when they show their soft center, you aren’t surprised, but you can’t help but smile. I think her and Peter were good for each other. Their time together ended too abruptly for me, even though I know he couldn’t stay there and leave Pax in his situation for too long.
Pax was my absolute favorite. This is the true genius of the book. Pennypacker writes from both Peter and Pax’s point of views and it’s when she writes as a fox that I lost my heart to the story. I’ve never met a fox, and I have no idea how they would think or feel, but when I was in Pax’s head, it felt genuine. Not since The One and Only Ivan have I felt so connected to an animal narrator.
The setting was a little underdeveloped, but I assume was intentionally so. Even so, I felt displaced at times. The theme of ‘war is the worst’ was a little overzealous. I prefer all things in moderation and would’ve received the message better if it was a little quieter. Although, I do understand that some veterans lives are completely consumed by their time spent in battle, so I don’t think it’s unrealistic, just heavy.
I did appreciate the ambiguous ending. I’m one of those readers who don’t always need it written out for me to the last second of happiness, or tied up in a neat bow. I love wondering about character’s futures, leaving room for more growth. Especially with Pax, none of the characters had reached a point where they had completed any sort of change in their lives. It was all just beginning.
I also think a lot of the book will go over the heads of young readers who read above their age group. But, the themes of post-traumatic stress, anxiety, anger management, sacrifice, growing up, wild vs. tame, and the bond between animal and man are important things for children to learn about or even recognize from the world around them.
One of the things that drew me to the novel, was the illustrations by Jon Klassen. There aren’t as many as I hoped for, but the ones that were there match the tone of the story and are a perfect compliment to Pennypacker’s words.
In the end, the things I liked about the book outweighed the things I didn’t, and I see why readers recommend it, just like I am now.
Worth the read.