Sara Pennypacker prefaces her middle grade novel Pax with a quote that foreshadows the vagueness of her setting, “Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.” The setting is war and could be anytime, anyplace. Into this setting, comes the mutual love of the boy Peter and his pet fox Pax.
Trouble comes when Peter’s father, his only living parent, enlists in the military. He lets Peter know there will be no place for the fox out in the country where he takes him to live with his grandfather. He drops the fox off by the side of the road. There’s a sense of the father getting rid of both to go to war.
Peter strikes out the next morning from his grandfather’s house planning to retrace the three hundred miles to find his fox. As if this did not seem impossible enough, he breaks his foot shortly into the journey. The hermit Vola, suffering herself from post-traumatic stress syndrome, helps him cope, shares some helpful philosophy, and teaches him to navigate with crutches before she makes a connection with a bus driver who will help him cover much of the mileage back.
In the meantime, Pax, who has never had to forage for himself in the wild, is taken in and instructed by a family of wild foxes. The story switches back and forth between Peter and Pax with the war an ever-present obstacle for both of them. She calls the humans, who turn on each other, the “war-sick.” Tension builds for both the boy and the fox as she leaves Peter and Pax alternately at the end of a chapter to switch to the other with the reader apprehensive that no satisfying ending is possible.
Pax will keep one from drifting off to sleep and will linger in one’s mind after the final page is finished. It is an excellent book for reading and discussing between middle graders and their parents or grandparents or in a classroom, particularly for the effects of war on children, animals, and nature. Perhaps one of the discussion questions could be whether that satisfying ending ever comes.