Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Penderwicks

By Jeanne Birdsall
Reviewed by Melissa

There are books that can change your life. There are books that keep you in your seat until the very end, eager to find out what will happen next. There are books that you regret finishing because the characters have become so real.

And then there are the quaint, simple, little books. Ones that are so charming it makes you smile.

Those are actually quite rare, if you think about it. Usually a book has to be about something or have some kind of agenda. It's unusual for a book about nothing much to be engaging and entertaining. But, that's the kind of book The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall, is. The subtitle -- A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy -- tells it all. That's the whole plot. But, that's not the whole story.

It starts like this: "For a long time after that summer, the four Penderwick sisters still talked of Arundel. Fate drove us there, Jane would say. No, it was the greedy landlord who sold our vacation house on Cape Cod, someone else would say, probably Skye."

I love the way Birdsall's tone sets the stage. You know right off that this book isn't going to be pretentious, that it doesn't have very lofty aims at all. There are four Penderwick girls -- Rosalind, the oldest and most responsible; Syke -- the headstrong tomboy; Jane -- the wistful, creative one; and Batty -- Elizabeth, but no one calls her that -- the youngest and Hound's (the dog, of course) devoted friend. I'd say they have an absent-minded father, but he's not that (not really). He's more of a hands-off father: he lets the girls enjoy their childhood for whatever it's worth, and doesn't try to structure things.

I think that's one of the most charming things about the book. In a world where kids are structured from breakfast to bedtime, it's refreshing to read about children who wander around all summer finding things to do. They meet a boy, Jeffrey (the son of the owner of Arundel; the Penderwicks are staying in a cottage on the estate). They go into a field and encounter a very temperamental bull. They play soccer in the flower gardens. They climb trees. They go to a birthday party. They avoid Jeffrey's mom and make friends with the cook and local tomato man. They have MOOPS and MOPS (Meeting Of Older Penderwick Sisters and Meeting Of Penderwick Sisters, respectively). They dream and write and fall in love. In short, they're children.

Another example: "Batty was watching a purple-and-orange bug when Jane screamed. The bug had fallen off a daisy, and Batty had lain down on her stomach to make sure it landed safely. Batty recognized the scream as Jane's and as Jane had a habit of screaming, more often than Skye, for example, Batty wasn't worried. However she did look up from the bug.

A bull is so much larger than a bug that at first Batty didn't understand what she was seeing. She looked back down at the bug, who had by now safely scuttled up another daisy stem, then looked back up again, hoping the black monster would be gone. Not only was it still there, it had come a step closer. It was only fifteen feet away.

'Nice horsie,' said Battie hopefully."

As much fun as it is to read this book, it's even better to read it out loud. The conversations in the book read so naturally -- everything in it is completely unforced. There's a soccer game that ends up being pivotal to the plot. And it's a lot of fun to read:

"But Jane was the worst of the three. The combination of worry about Jeffrey and two-on-one slaughter brought out her most aggressive side, so much so that she needed to become someon a lot tougher than herself... to get through it. That's where Mick Hart came in. Mick Hart, the oh-so-talented center from Manchester, England, dreamt up by Jane six months earlier after a terrible game in which she was pummeled by a fullback twice her size.When Jane was Mick, she felt no pain, she could maneuver around any fullback on the face of the earth, she was adored by hans and teammates alike, and she had a big mouth. The big mouth was Jane's favorite part.

'FISH HEAD!' she shouted over and over. 'KNAVE! CURL!'"

But the best thing about the book is the way the girls stick together as a family. The most important thing in the world is each other. When one of them gets hurt -- whether it be physically or emotionally -- they all circle the wagons, offering comfort and support and help. There's no artificial aloofness. There's only love and friendship.

I would say all books should be like that, but I don't really think that. We'd soon lose the magic that these little books have in our lives. We need quiet little books like this to remind us what life can be like. And to make us smile. What better reason could there be?

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