The Book, the Fox, and the Boy
For me, the deepest feelings and moving experiences in any book are the relationships the author exposes us to. But for some time I’ve been unsatisfied with the complex, secular people in the books I’ve been reading. I realize the richness of a literary experience is determined by the layers of conflict and uncertainty the reader works through, and these may be considered signs of intellectual and literary maturity. But I’m often left feeling alienated and empty.
Then I discovered PAX, by Sara Pennypacker. Our older daughter gave it to my wife, and I randomly chose to read it one listless night.
In no time I experienced the joy of discovering a wholeness, as if I were learning to love all over again.
The two bonded as only a child and animal can. They played, laughed and loved, until Peter’s father forced him to abandon the innocent and bewildered PAX by a roadside, bordering a forest vibrating with intimations of evil.
This is the land of the ”war sick,” faceless men fighting a nameless war with no sides, and with the singular objective of planting explosives to destroy the land and foul the water. A cruel, violent war of destruction of nature, its beauty and innocent creatures, blown up and left on the soiled river banks.
Into this miasma, PAX must survive, while finding his way back to his boy, and heal from the profound hurt of betrayal. Peter, the boy, runs away from his grandfather’s house when his father joins ”war sick.” He yearns to be reunited with PAX… with the goodness of their lives together. In the process, and in simple, effective language, Pennypacker awakens in us the deep reality of the unity of all things. She knows well how our secular, Spiritless lives still stir deep yearnings for that “something” that comes from a place that's so powerful it can overwhelm. When Peter is asked, ”which is it, home or your animal companion?” Peter realizes that they are the very same thing. PAX grows, matures and falls in with a courageous, loyal Vixen dedicated to protecting her lame baby brother. This becomes his new family.
But Peter races destiny to be reunited with PAX, who, like all the creatures of the woods, is is increasingly terrified by the faceless war sick.
The reader will likely be moved by our helplessness and the perceptions of a lost self, of the loss of innocence and trust. What is stirred is a hunger to be reunited with home, the place where love is not measured. Pennypacker, through PAX and Peter and the Woods, helps us call back the discarded parts of ourselves; the parts we loved and lost and need to reclaim.
At the end, there’s the inevitable reunion of boy and animal. PAX is overwhelmed with joy at seeing Peter again. The fox jumps into the boy’s lap, nuzzles his face, puts his head under Peter’s chin, and breathes in his boy’s scent, tinged now with a emerging manhood.
But when PAX looks up, he sees Bristle and Runt (the Vixen and her kit brother) about to leave the clearing and return to the deep woods where they belong. With Peter’s arms still around him, PAX feels the love they held have pass between them. It fills the forest and reminds the reader of the impossible choices of the heart.
For children, adults, and all who have ever loved an animal and been loved by one, there is no greater wonder. And there is likely no more bone-marrow loss than saying good by. Letting go. PAX licks the tears from Peter’s face, and pulls away to join his family. Comes back for a final caress and hug, and then… leaves Peter for good, to join his fox family, leaving us touched, teary and more human.
Reading PAX was to dwell in a sweeter place. The question is how we will come back, or do we want to?
Robert Frost assures us that earth’s the right place for love. As long as we are sharing it with an animal, we will never be alone. This much I know at my core.