Authored by Sara Pennypacker, Pax is a poignant novel about a young boy named Peter who rescues and adopts a wild fox kit (named Pax, of course), and develops a special bond of love and loyalty as the two grow together and share a similar family tragedy. As Peter grows up, his father enlists in the military and takes him to live with his grandfather, after first forcing Peter to release Pax back into the wild. Heartbroken and wracked with guilt for feeling like he abandoned his beloved pet, Peter runs away from his grandfather’s house and sets out on a journey across hundreds of miles to return to the spot where he let Pax go.
Set against a wartime backdrop in a nameless world, Pax is a coming of age story on multiple fronts. Early on in his trek, Peter suffers an injury, stumbling into a fateful relationship with an amputee veteran living in a sort of self-imposed exile in the woods. The two don’t initially hit it off but steadily become closer. Named Vola, the recluse woman tends to Peter’s injury and in essence becomes a teacher and philosophical mentor, while Peter in return helps Vola with her own personal trauma, before ultimately resuming his adventure to home–and to Pax.
Having been rescued as a kit, Pax never had to learn to survive as the wild animal that he is. After first staying in the spot where Peter left him–within range of the smell of his humans–Pax is eventually forced to attempt his own journey south in hopes of reuniting with his boy. At the same time, he encounters a family of foxes less trusting of humans–and not so keen on Pax for having human scent still in his fur. Pax slowly develops his instincts and abilities to hunt and survive, finding his place as a wild animal while never losing his belief that Peter will come back for him.
The story unfolds from both perspectives, in third person, over alternating chapters. Pennypacker does a wonderful job of writing Pax’s half of the story with a respect for natural fox behavior, taking small liberties here and there for the sake of storytelling without pushing the limits of fictional embellishment in order to humanize Pax in a way that would have been too unrealistic. Surprisingly, Pennypacker also delves, almost poetically, into a number of deep themes such as domestic issues, family loss, and the effects of war and PTSD.
As an animal lover and pet owner myself, I love the nuanced way she conveys the depth of the relationship between Pax and Peter through memories of things they used to do together. As an example from a personal anecdote, a few years ago my dog that I had grown up with since high school passed away. Strangely, she liked bananas, so whenever I would eat a banana she would sit under me and beg for a bite. Once I would get to the end, I would feed her the last little nub at the bottom, which I would normally toss anyway. Now whenever I eat a banana and get to the last bit, it stirs up memories of her. That’s the type of feeling this story evokes.
The evocative power of Pennypacker’s narrative is aided by lovely black and white inked artwork by illustrator Jon Klassen. Klassen’s illustrations are understated and used sparingly throughout, but when they appear, they flow perfectly with the text while helping to add an elevated sense of immersion and emotion that brings certain key scenes to life in an impactful way. Another nice touch is the way each chapter number is presented within a silhouette of Pax’s or Peter’s profile, denoting which character the proceeding chapter will follow.
For the hardcover edition, I also very much appreciate the extra care that went into the cover design underneath the dust jacket: a pine green binding debossed with a gold-leaf silhouette of Pax on the front cover and a debossed image of Peter on the back cover, etchings of grass, flowers, and plant life stamped into the empty surrounding space. Apparently there is a special diorama galley box edition available as well, which I’d love to collect but am not sure where to get it from (perhaps it was a limited time deal that’s no longer available).
Pax is written for children–I would say 10 years old and up–but it tells a story that will resonate with adults as well. Especially adults who may have rescued an animal sometime in their life or had a particular pet they formed a special bond with. Ideally, this is a book that parents should read and discuss with their kids, because while the core of the story is sweet and heartfelt, it does contain a number of grim moments, and it also regularly deals in mature subject matter. Beautifully written and thought-provoking from the opening line to the gut-punching conclusion, Pax deserves not only a place on your bookshelf but also in your heart.
Source: Book purchased by reviewer.