And Then I Read: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

Penderwicks cover
Text ©Jean Birdsall, cover ©David Frankland

I am definitely not in the target audience for this book, nor anywhere close to it. That audience would be mainly young girls, and also perhaps mothers of young girls. I picked it up while shopping at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, England last May. I liked the cover illustration. On the first page inside, reviewers compared it to Elizabeth Enright, Edward Eager and E. Nesbit. That’s what prompted me to put it on my buy pile, as all three are authors I like very much.

As I began to read it recently, the closest comparison was to Enright’s Melendy family: four children (in this case all girls) aged 4 to 12, all intelligent, all talented and likeable, with a professor father who is there if needed, but mostly stays out of the way, a scene-stealing dog, and for location, a vacation cottage on the grounds of a huge estate. Before long the obnoxious woman who owns the estate is established as the villain, and her son as an interesting ally, with other estate staff in important supporting roles. After initial misunderstandings, everyone gets on quite well with each other, except, of course, with the villain and her boyfriend.

As I read, my jaded first impression was that the author was trying too hard, quickly outlining the artsy child (Jane, a writer), the sport-loving rebel tomboy (Skye), the responsible eldest with a crush (Rosalind), and the spoiled, shy baby (Batty). The neighbor boy Jeffrey fills in first as mystery, then opponent, then staunch ally, and exploration and adventures make up much of the action in the early chapters.

Before long, however, I was sucked right into the story, stopped analyzing, and just enjoyed this book as a good read, the kind I don’t often encounter in new authors these days. The writing is quite good, no surprise that the book won a National Book Award. Perhaps not quite up to Enright, but really well done.

In a way this story is a throwback to family stories of an earlier era, like Enright’s Melendy Family and others. There is no fantasy element, but in a way the entire setting is slighty fantastic, in that the modern world hardly intrudes at all. Other than a few mentions of a computer, there are no electronic entertainments, no pop culture, no Modern Problems that must be Coped With, as in so many contemporary family stories. And this is a family that has adjusted to life without a mother (she died some years before) with little angst, instead using her memory to help bind them together. Not that they never fight, but under all is a tight commitment to each other. As the plot develops, they work together to solve problems, get out of trouble, and reach common goals.

If you like well-written, entertaining stories, you can’t go wrong with this one. Or give it to a young girl, she’ll probably be delighted.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

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