Book Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker

by Julianna Holshue

Sara Pennypacker’s 2016 young adult novel, Pax, is sure to warm your heart as well as challenge your preconceived notions of what makes one human, animal, or both.


To give a brief summary of Pax, Peter is told by his father, a soldier, to abandosn his companion fox, Pax, on the side of a road far from his home. Peter reluctantly obeys and immediately regrets his decision.


Back at his grandfather’s house, Peter decides to pack a bag and a map to go out and find his best friend. Peter’s goal is to find Pax and bring him home, yet the perils of navigating the forest facing injury, rough weather, and approaching armies, all complicate his mission.


Along the way, he injures his leg and is taken in by Vola, a former soldier who lives off of the land and rarely has human visitors. She repairs Peter’s leg, teaches him about the truth of war and oneness, and they both try to repair each other's broken souls. While Peter is healing and learning, Pax is stuck straddling two lives as the distance between him and Peter stretches, one as the companion of his human friend Peter, the other as a fox who hunts and survives in a newfound pack of foxes.


Peter and Pax’s spiritual journeys coincide with their physical ones as they search the wilderness to find one another. Both get stronger, physically and spiritually, and Peter finds Pax with the other foxes, thankfully unharmed from the war. In the end, Pax and Peter decide to go their separate ways knowing they will always be together in spirit and that they can always find each other when they need to.


To be honest, I was surprised by the influence this book had on me. Pax catapulted me into a contemplation of my relationship with nature like no other book has done before. I mean, here’s this young adult book about the relationship between a boy, Peter, and his fox, Pax, and I managed to read about not only their inseparable dynamic, but also our non-concrete identities as humans and animals, the Buddhist concept of oneness, the invalidity of the concrete definitions of “wild”, “tame”, “animal”, and “human”, and the dangers of war to one’s relationship with nature. It's all in this one book!


This narrative abounds with symbolism, philosophical meditations, and interpretations one could discuss on end, which makes it such a rich and insightful read.


Pax’s chapters are broken up into two perspectives, Peter’s and Pax’s, and alternate each chapter. The “dialogue” of the animals is italicized.


In the author’s note, Pennypacker states, “[f]ox communication is a complex system of vocalization, gesture, scent, and expression. The ‘dialogue’ in italics in Pax’s chapters attempts to translate their eloquent language (n.p.).”


So, both humans and animals speak in this story. I think it is important to point out that while reading, I have never viewed Pax as a side character, animal sidekick, or even an inferior. He is intelligent, aware of his emotions and surroundings, and communicates effectively with both Peter and the other animals, and for these reasons, I see him as equal to the human characters regardless of his unconventional ways of communication, which are just as compelling as those of humans.


To show you just how powerful the language is of these animals, I give you the following two quotes, the first is from a doe who sees Peter:


“‘[y]ou humans. You ruin everything…’” (54), the second from the cries of crows witnessing the destruction of war: “[e]verything is broken. The fibers of the trees, the clouds, even the air is broken” (136).


These emotional messages tug at the reader’s heartstrings and make one realize how much animals are aware of. Furthermore, the animals have aptly named the soldiers the “war-sick” as they watch the diseased burn the earth, uproot trees, and pollute water. These animals are left to suffer in their once hospitable environment now ravaged by this intangible and incomprehensible illness of hate, indifference, rage, ownership, or destruction these humans act upon.


Oddly enough, we are never given any illustrations of the war-torn landscape. We are only given illustrations of undisturbed wilderness, bar the intrusions of wooden houses, barns, and sleeping tents. However, the images are still powerful. Jon Klassen, the book’s illustrator, provides the reader with black and white illustrations which appear simple, yet in fact, draw the eye’s attention to the beautifully stylized texture in his drawn natural scenes. The bark on the trees, the curves and edges of leaves, the varied grains of wood, the spotted noses of resting foxes, the grainy shadows on boughs, the puddles pooled on grass, the raindrops dripping through bare branches, and the sunlight beaming through the open arms of skinny trees are handfuls of his depictions of the beauty of the natural landscape.


Klassen’s expressive line work supports the moods of melancholy, longing, playful curiosity, danger, warning, closure, and peace dictated by Pennypacker’s words, which allows for an effective bridge between word and illustration.


Moving forward, one thing I really admire about this work is its vagueness of setting, in both place and time. All we know about the coming war is that it is over water. The time, place, and parties are unknowns. There is a “good” side and there is a “bad” side, but we don’t know which is which because as Vola knows, there are none. By leaving the details of the war open-ended, Pennypacker leaves it up to the reader to decide if the events are in the past, present, or future, and what this does is allows not only for diverse interpretations but also for multiple reads, which is always a treat.


At the heart of this narrative is the notion of “oneness”, which is explained by my favorite character, Vola, the woodworker recluse, and retired soldier with a wooden leg. She demonstrates war’s devastating consequences to the connection between humans, animals, and their environment, through the concept of “oneness.” Vola explains to Peter that the inseparable bond he and Pax have is “oneness”, in which man and animal are one. She goes on to say that everything in nature is connected so that when humans destroy nature through war, they are only injuring themselves and their relationship with nature.


Vola also states that the rare merging of energies between Pax and Peter is the experience of “‘[t]wo but not two” (186), which is the Buddhist concept of nonduality that demonstrates how seemingly unconnected things are in fact connected (186), such as humans and animals, and Peter and Pax. And it is this oneness that pushes and pulls Pax and Peter apart and together throughout the entire story.


Not to mention, it is this notion of oneness that is examined, tested, broken, and repaired throughout this narrative which leaves the reader with a renewed sense of hope for humanity’s relationship with nature.


And so, if you are wondering why a young boy would travel miles in the woods alone and injured during an approaching wartime to be reunited with his pet fox his father forced him to abandon near volatile battlegrounds, then I suggest you read Pax to understand why you would do the same thing for your other half.

About the Author: Julianna Holshue is in her final semester as an English major and Creative Writing minor at Rowan University. She is the Media Editor of the Glassworks magazine, a publication of Rowan University’s Master of Arts in Writing, and is looking to pursue a career in editing and creative writing. When she is not analyzing writing or creating poetry, she can be found making desserts, going on nature walks, and listening to spooky podcasts. Follow her on LinkedIn.

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