I just finished reading The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, by Jeanne Birdsall. I love all the Penderwick books–they take me back to reading Edward Eager’s books and Mary Nash’s Mrs. Coverlet books when I was young. They also make me think of Elizabeth Enright’s books, which I didn’t find until I was in my forties (thanks to Jen Robinson), but which have the same flavor. It’s partially the pleasure of nostalgia that makes me lose myself in Birdsall’s books, but it’s also more than that.
It’s the writing.
I have to say I think this latest book is my favorite. It’s kind of different, because the story opens with Rosalind getting ready to spend two summer weeks with a friend, separated from the rest of the family–who are all heading off to a little house in Maine. Rosalind isn’t really in the book, which is an absolutely necessary plot device to put Skye–my wonderful impatient, frustrated, girl-with-a-real-temper Skye–in charge as the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick). A job she SO does not want.
I’m not going to go into a full review of the book–I recommend the whole series wholeheartedly, but I also think you could just pick up any one of them and fall in love, especially this one.
What I want to talk about is something I think Birdsall does especially well in the Point Mouette book–she writes a fun, charming, easy book…with stakes.
I have one of those books in a drawer–the ones we write & write on and revise & revise, then submit and, in the long run, get rejections for. I love this book, which is how I suspect most of us feel about our drawer books. But I also know what’s missing. You guessed it: stakes.
Several agents and editors were nice enough to explain that the book was perhaps too quiet, that they didn’t feel the things the characters went through mattered enough–not necessarily, I don’t think, that the events weren’t big enough, but that they weren’t getting the feel of how important these events were to the hero. As the book sits in the drawer, it also sits in the back of my mind, and every now and then–as I work on more current projects–I wonder about what it is I can and should do to revise–yet again–and amp things up for my hero.
I’m not going to get into spoilers, but Birdsall achieves just what I want and need to for my book. I don’t think anyone would call a Penderwick book heavy,–I think light is a much better and probably most often applied adjective. Light in a good way–that you smile a lot as you read her books, that you laugh out loud, that the story moves quickly (even with the nostalgic feel), and that it is a sheer, happy pleasure to be immersed in the stories.
And yet…Skye REALLY doesn’t want to be OAP. The humor around her taking on the job Rosalind has carried for five years is absolutely brilliant and wonderfully funny. Skye’s worries and fears also are woven in with humor, but at the same time, you GET why she doesn’t want this responsibility, and why it isn’t easy for her to handle. That’s real. The same with Batty’s missing Rosalind and the nighttime fears she doesn’t share with anyone except Hound, the family dog. Very sweet, very charming, and–again–very real. Batty doesn’t remember their mother; Rosalind has carried that role for as long as Batty knows. And it’s hard for her to be separated from her biggest sister. Truly hard. And we feel that. The scenes total maybe 5 or 10 pages in the entire book, but we feel what Batty’s feeling in every word.
And then the Big Thing. No, I’m not going to give away what the Big Thing is–I’m telling you, go read the books. The Big Thing doesn’t come along until very close to the end of the book (unless you’re a much smarter reader than me, which–in terms of plots & secrets–isn’t actually hard to be), but when it hits…BOOM. It is intense. And hard. And, once more, so absolutely real.
It matters. Suddenly all the light reality that has made us love these characters so much gets completely transformed into anxiety and heartache and hope. Yes, because it’s a huge deal and, yes, because the outcome could go either a good way or a bad way, but mostly, I think, because of the work Birdsall has done before. The realness she has woven into every scene, every moment, has created characters that we care about–that we sympathize and empathize with. With the perfect touch, never forgetting to charm us and make us smile, she has shown us that the things that happen in this world–small or big–matter to these people.
So, yeah, they matter to us.