I recently listened to the middle-grade novel Pax by Sara Pennypacker. I’ve never read any of her books before but really loved Pax. This exciting, warm, intricate novel about the bond between a boy and his pet fox kept me riveted right from the first chapter.
Peter found a newborn fox kit when he was just weeks old, with his family killed. The other kits in the nest had already died, but one was still alive, though weak, when Peter took him home and nursed him back to health. He named the fox Pax, and the boy and the fox were inseparable. Having grown up in captivity, Pax knows nothing of life in the wild, and he loves Peter – and feels protective of him – just as much as Peter feels for Pax.
As the story opens, however, Peter and Pax are being torn away from each other. There is a war going on, and Peter’s father has enlisted. While he’s away, Peter will go to live with his grandfather, so Peter’s dad says they have to take Pax back to the wild. He drives to nearby woods and makes Peter toss a toy as far as he can for Pax to chase. When Pax comes back with the plastic soldier in his teeth, Peter and his father are speeding down the road in the car. Both Peter and Pax are heartbroken, and Pax is also very confused by this unexpected turn of events.
Peter knows immediately that it was the wrong thing to do. He sneaks out of his grandfather’s house his very first night there to go back for Pax, but the spot where they left him is 300 miles away, near Peter’s home. The distance doesn’t matter to Peter; he is determined to find his fox.
Meanwhile, alone in the fields and forest, Pax feels scared and confused. He’s never lived in the wild and doesn’t even know how to find food (his favorite is peanut butter), and the other animals he encounters are not always friendly. But Pax is just as determined as Peter to be reunited with his boy, and he hangs onto the plastic toy soldier with Peter’s scent on it and decides to wait for Peter to come back.
Chapters alternate between Peter’s and Pax’s points of view. That might sound odd, hearing a story from the perspective of a fox, but Pennypacker makes it work beautifully. Both characters have warm, endearing voices that make you care about them. Peter encounters significant hardships on his long journey, though he meets a hermit who lives alone in the woods who helps him, both physically and emotionally. Pax meets serious challenges of his own, in his struggle to survive in the wild, but he also makes new friends among some other orphaned foxes who help him.
The war is also a significant theme in the novel, occurring right near where Pax was left and where Peter is headed. The animals’ reactions to this human concept of war are particularly intriguing, as the other foxes try to explain to Pax what is happening. The time and place of the story are left intentionally vague; its lessons about friendship and war apply to the past as well as the present and the future.
This unique novel was absolutely compelling – I finished listening to it in record time, scarcely removing my earbuds! It is a story of friendship – between Peter and Pax but also between humans – and of survival. This is a tale of adventure and suspense, but it is also warm and heart-breaking at times. Pax’s role in the story and his relationship with Peter reminded me somewhat of Kate DiCamillo’s novels, like Flora & Ulysses and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, which is a big compliment! I loved every minute of this tense yet hopeful story about friendship, love, war, and peace.
P.S. The audio book was excellent - you can listen to an audio sample at the Amazon link below. Just click the "listen" button.