Book Review: “The Penderwicks” by Jeanne Birdsall

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The Penderwicks
by Jeanne Birdsall

This is a first novel by an author on a mission. According to her own statement on the back flap, Jeanne Birdsall vowed as a child to grow up to be a writer when she ran out of books to read and had to start taking home library books she had read before. She kept her promise, not only to herself, but to many other young readers who want more good stories to enjoy. The results are encouraging: The Penderwicks won a National Book Award.

Many hours of reading pleasure have begun with a family of slightly unruly, but generally good children going out into the countryside for a summer holiday. This book’’s twist on the concept is that the four Penderwick sisters and their widowed father didn’’t expect their vacation cottage to be the summer house on the grounds of an impressive Massachusetts mansion. Swiftly following this surprise on the Penderwicks is a surprise on you: the announcement that the family dog, Hound, is about to barf. So without any delay, the book welcomes you into an unflinchingly honest, very modern family holiday tale.

Yet it is also a funny, innocent, and touching story. You will find it hard not to care about five-year-old Batty, the shy baby sister who always insists on wearing a pair of costume wings; ten-year-old Jane, who scribbles melodramatic stories and dreams of being a published author; eleven-year-old Skye, a scholarly yet hot-tempered tomboy; and twelve-year-old Rosalind, who serves as a substitute mother for her sisters when she isn’’t distracted by a crush on the nineteen-year-old gardener.

Together with their rambunctious Hound, the sisters stir up a lot of fun, adventure, and (unfortunately) family conflict as they run around the estate of the beautiful-but-brittle Mrs. Tifton. There are encounters with an angry bull, a runaway rabbit, a garden contest, and a fancy-dress party. But the biggest part of their adventures has to do with a lonely boy Skye’’s age, a boy named Jeffrey Tifton.

Jeffrey suspects his mother and her fiancé are planning to send him to a military school, a fate that he dreads more than anything else. He doesn’’t know how to tell his mother that he wants to go to a regular school and, perhaps, study music. With the Penderwicks running around the estate, Jeffrey gets his first taste of friendship (apart from smug bullies thrust on him by his socially-conscious mother). But it also puts him in a tough spot that forms the heart of this story, and that moves the hearts of four very different, but very caring sisters.