Pax by Sara Pennypacker

By Maureen Tai, 1 May 2018

“So which it is? You going back for your home or for your pet?”
“They’re the same thing,” Peter said, the answer sudden and sure, although a surprise to him.

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My interest was piqued by the author’s name.  And the illustrations are gorgeous, as you’d expect from the maestro of minimalism, Jon Klassen.  The cover captivated me – the back profile of a red fox, ears pricked and alert, watching the egg yolk of a sun sink into the horizon.

A word of warning though. Despite being easy on the eye, Pax is not an easy book to read. 

The setting is, I’m guessing, mid-1940s rural America. Fox, coyote and bear country.  A war threatens, both sides bent on inflicting death and destruction on the other, for undisclosed reasons.

In the midst of this chaos, a twelve-year old boy is forced to abandon his pet, a tamed fox called Pax.  The boy realises that he shouldn’t have left the animal he has cared for in the last five years.  Bound by love and driven by duty, Peter sets off to find Pax and to reclaim the life they once shared.  In the wild for the first time in his fox life, Pax is similarly lost and confused, and equally driven by the need to find and protect his boy from harm.

Two stories unfurl, one about Peter and the other about Pax, as they journey towards each other – across towns, through fields, forests and woodlands, along highways – two lines converging into one.  By the time they reunite, both have been irreversibly altered, so much so that their relationship hangs in the balance.

As the back cover says, PAX is about “the unbreakable bond between a boy and his fox.”  But what makes the book hard to read is that it is about much more than that. PAX (meaning “peace” in Latin) is about the destruction wrought by  the “war-sick”, the term Pax’s fox friend, Grey, uses to describe the fighting humans.  It is about the costs of war – big and small, important and insignificant, human and animal – from which there is no escape and for which there is no excuse.  It is about the casualties of war, which are unflinchingly described.  The field mice that perish in burning fields. The former medic who is missing a leg and living a life of isolation. The soldier who dies with a copy of The Seven Voyages of Sinbad tucked in his pocket.  The boy who worries that he has inherited an untameable anger from his father, who has betrayed him. The fox who watches his world disintegrate around him.  No redemption is possible, and none is offered.

The writing is strong, honest and gritty.  There weren’t many parts in the book where I was swept away by the poetic beauty of the words, but there was one particular death that was achingly moving. In fact, I had to stop reading as the tears made it hard to see the text on the page.  And once you cry, you always remember.

For ages 9 and up.

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