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    The Penderwick Family Honor

    Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick novels probe the tension between happiness and loss.

    By Jeff Reimer

    May 21, 2024

    I recently finished reading all five of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick novels out loud to my family. I don’t mean to my young children. I read them to my whole family – my wife, our young girls, our freshman daughter, and our seventeen-year-old son. We’ve read many books this way. It’s taken longer to get through them lately. The weekly maelstrom of homework, sports, and friends, to say nothing of my wife’s and my schedules, leaves us with precious few evenings when we all manage to sit down in the same room at the same time reading together for the pleasure of it. It takes a lot of effort and intentionality. But it’s worth it. The evenings are priceless. In not two years my son will have moved out and gone to college.

    In the early years I put in a lot of evenings reading my kids board books and picture books and I Can Read books. I did this for their pleasure more than mine, though many of the books were delightful enough. But I also did it so that reading aloud together would be something they assumed was normal, and so that someday I could share with them the books I love and have loved, and that I hope they too will love and one day read to their children. But now that time has come, and it’s almost already gone. Not long ago my youngest children couldn’t sit still long enough to listen to me read a novel; soon my oldest children won’t be here to listen to me read at all. The number of years we have to all read together is a frighteningly small one. I console myself by remembering that these evenings are hugely formative for my kids, and they will take these experiences with them into the world as a part of who they are. It is a small consolation, but such are the consolations of us weepy parents, who both love and hate to watch our children grow up.

    The Penderwicks feel like they were written for such experiences of togetherness, for families gathered in rooms, nestled in couches, curled up in front of fireplaces, drinking mugs of tea or cider or hot cocoa. They are the kind of books that relish that idyllic sense of closeness and comfort and safety. And they know it so well because they know, piercingly, how fragile it is, how easily lost or broken or mishandled.

    If you’ve met the Penderwicks, then chances are you want your family to be like them. They are old-fashioned and unpretentious. They are all readers, and enjoy cozy homes and comfortable, unfussy furniture. They get along.

    The father, Martin, a botany professor, is patient and unassuming and benignly absent-minded. He dispenses parental advice in the form of gnomic Latin sayings to his four daughters, Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty, and is confident and self-possessed, secure in his quiet authority. He gives his daughters freedom to play and grow and develop, but he is there when they need him.

    The girls, for their part, are all smart and pretty and talented. They have adventures in the woods with their beloved dog, Hound, and play raucous, made-up games like three-on-one slaughter. They have their own strong sense of loyalty to each other, which is expressed in a shared, private culture, with secret meetings and ceremonies and acronyms. Their decisions are all ratified by swearing on “the Penderwick family honor.” They are an ideal family.

    If all this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Birdsall has deliberately made the Penderwicks appealing because she is here to destroy you. In exchange for this family’s tale, you will give yourself over to Jeanne Birdsall, and she in her terrible wisdom will destroy you. The tale begins innocently enough, with a family vacationing in a cottage on the grounds of a grand and mysterious mansion in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. But before too long it becomes apparent that the girls’ mother has died sometime in the not-too-distant past, and that this sadness is the silent center around which all their private hurts revolve. By the time this sinks in it will be too late; you will already be caught in the web Birdsall has been weaving around you. But you will not mind. You will offer yourself up freely to be destroyed, because you will love these characters, and to open yourself to love is to open yourself to pain.

    Strong, close-knit, loving families are what they are, not because they are unrealistic or uninteresting, but because they possess the moral resources that enable them to overcome grief and loss.

    It is not as if Birdsall has written a tale of Shakespearean tragedy or Dickensian hardship. She has not. She incorporates sadness and loss into the stories’ atmosphere of buoyant, free-spirited reverie with a deft and subtle touch. When the books are sad, they are not melancholy, and they are fun without being frivolous, a delicate balance that prevents them from sliding into melodrama or sentimentality, and that gives their happiness a deeper quality, something akin to joy.

    Subtle as it may be, this tension between happiness and loss is at the heart of the Penderwick books. Birdsall’s purpose is not to explore the unhappinesses of some Tolstoyan family but to portray a happy family whose happiness is under great pressure. Strong, close-knit, loving families are what they are, not because they are unrealistic or uninteresting, but because they possess the moral resources that enable them to overcome grief and loss.

    All families tell stories about themselves, little mythologies about who they are and what defines them. Being a Penderwick means holding oneself to the Penderwick family honor. The Penderwick family honor is never defined exactly, but it is repeatedly invoked at moments of conflict and deliberation. The family draws on a shared moral imagination that is organized around virtues like loyalty, bravery, respect, the courage to do the right thing, knowing right from wrong. It is accountability to the Penderwick family honor that most often pushes one of the children to do the right thing, or prevents them from doing the wrong one, or pulls them back after they have made a mistake.

    The Penderwicks live very much in the modern world, but their collective fidelity to the family honor gives the stories a fairy-tale sense of timelessness and old-fashioned appeal. C. S. Lewis said that the reader of fairy tales “does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” I do not mean that the books carry hints of magic or transcendence. They are aggressively mundane – more Little Women than Lewis. Something at once more prosaic and more powerful than magic is at work. Birdsall tells the story of a family that has visited the enchanted wood but lives in the real one. The Penderwick books show a family negotiating an emerging mythology. Can the fairy-tale virtues of the Penderwick family honor withstand the onslaughts of the real world? How will the death of their mother define them? What sort of story will they tell about themselves and about her?

    Grief at their loss puts incredible strain on the family, threatening to warp each character’s merits into flaws. Martin’s benevolent detachment drifts into vacancy and inattention. Rosalind’s matronly care for her younger sisters threatens to absorb what remains of her childhood. Skye’s loyalty and spiritedness slide into stubbornness, fear of intimacy, and resentment. Jane’s ability to retreat into her fertile imagination makes her unreliable and unempathetic. And Batty, who has no memory of her mother, grows up in the vortex of her family’s grief, alone in not having experienced the formational family event, with a dog for a best friend and a terror of speaking to strangers.

    As pressures mount, the family members learn to tell their family story rightly and truthfully. But in order to do so, each of them must be confronted with a correct (or corrected) memory of their mother.

    illustration of kids walking with dogs

    Illustration by Isabel Warren-Lynch. Used by permission.

    At the climax of the first book, the mother is brought to bear as a fixed point of reference for each of the three older girls. When the snobbish and supercilious Mrs. Tifton assumes that the girls are (in her estimation) so unruly because their mother has left them, Skye must come to her mother’s rescue, and in a pique of heartbreaking indignation she sets the record straight: “You couldn’t in a million years understand anything about my mother. You’re not good enough. She would never have left us on purpose. She died. Did you hear me? My mother is DEAD!” Likewise, when Rosalind slips and hits her head after seeing Cagney kiss another girl, her father questions her about it, but she is too ashamed to tell him. So he appeals to her mother, asking, “If your mother were alive, would there be anything about last night too shameful to explain to her?” When Rosalind’s answer is no, he lets it drop. And when Jane is crushed by Dexter Dupree’s offhanded dismissal of the novel she’s written, her father, to console her, says, “You have a rare and marvelous gift for words. And your imagination! Do you remember what your mother used to say?” And Jane answers, satisfied, “That it was the eighth wonder of the world.”

    As the series progresses Birdsall raises the stakes. In the fourth book the most momentous confrontation with the memory of their mother occurs. This time it is Skye who must be corrected, when it is revealed that she has (mistakenly, it will turn out) thought all along that their mother would have lived if she had received treatment for her cancer rather than give birth to Batty, and that she blames Batty and resents her for it. When Batty overhears Skye say all this, it is a world-defining event for her; this revelation, in her reckoning, alienates her permanently from the entire family. Her mother, instead of being a source of intimacy drawing her together with her family out of the past, becomes the mechanism of her isolation from them. Her memory, then, must also be corrected. Until it is, she slips into an abyss of darkness so profound that it could well engulf her and possibly the entire family. It is one of the most frightening, realistic, and moving accounts of a child’s inner sadness I’ve ever read. What pulls her back from the edge is her father’s direct intervention, when he learns what has devastated Batty, and he tells her the truth about her mother.

    All this makes the books one long meditation on coming to terms with loss. They constitute a portrait of a family learning to walk together through suffering and find in their shared life the means to face the forces that threaten to pull them apart. This is the power of a family that is unwilling to look away from the darkness, that chooses to illuminate it rather than avoid it. They do it because that is what Penderwicks do. They do it because that is what it means to be a Penderwick.

    I cry easily at films, music, books. That doesn’t mean I’m proud of it. I maintain around my family a cool ironic reserve. I am the paterfamilias; I am in control; I am stable and reliable. Crying does not befit my office. So I hide it, or when concealment fails I laugh it off or make a self-deprecating joke. The thing is, though, when I read the Penderwicks out loud to my family, all this control goes out the window. Birdsall dismantles my carefully honed emotional defenses and wrecks me in front of my children.

    Her books seem calculated to have this effect. They force you to square up to sadness and look it in the face. My young daughters call the fourth book “the sad book.” They, like all children, know sadness only intuitively. But we adults know better. We know what’s lost when a parent dies, or when a child senses that they are unloved or unwanted. Birdsall knows too. And she knows just how to drive the stake through the hearts of her adult readers without overwhelming her younger ones.

    The family draws on a shared moral imagination that is organized around virtues like loyalty, bravery, respect, the courage to do the right thing, knowing right from wrong.

    Perhaps I am more vulnerable than some. Eight years ago I almost lost my wife to cancer, and so I feel a susceptibility to this particular sadness. The series of negotiations the Penderwicks face might have been ours. Maybe the Penderwick books are not so sad to other people. Maybe I am sentimental. Whatever the case, my wife survived and is healthy and free of the disease that wrapped itself around her and us. But it does not take much to plunk me right back down in the darkness of those weeks and months and years.

    So I cry when I read the Penderwicks. I cry when I watch Martin say goodbye to his wife in the hospital. I cry when Batty hears her sister say she wishes her mother would have lived instead of Batty. I cry when her father tries to tell her the true story about her mother’s death but can’t and falls silent and looks out the window and has to tell the story in the third person. To reiterate: I don’t like this. But I trust Birdsall with my sadness. She is a formidable foe in the battle for my tears, but in the end, I give them to her freely, because she knows, like any good parent does of their children, just what her readers need.

    illustration of kids walking with a dog

    Illustration by Katrina Damkoehler. Used by permission.

    The Penderwick family honor not only staves off darkness but also acts as a force of welcome and hospitality. The surplus of love at the heart of the family overwhelms alienation and isolation. As the family surmounts each challenge to their cohesiveness, they draw the people they encounter along the way into the amplitude of their joy. In the first book the girls make Jeffrey Tifton an honorary Penderwick. In the moment their offer feels sweet and spontaneous, but it is undertaken with great solemnity. And he stays an honorary Penderwick for the rest of his life, with all the consequences and complications that entails. In the second book Iantha, the recently widowed woman who moves into the neighborhood with her infant son, is taken into the Penderwick clan and eventually marries Martin, Brady Bunch–ing the two families together. In the third book the Penderwicks help Jeffrey find his father, Alec, and in the process, they find a husband, Turron, for their Aunt Claire.

    In the fourth book the theme is inverted, and all the family connections are tested: Skye rejects Jeffrey’s romantic advances and pushes him away, and she must be reminded that her personal decisions affect the whole family; Rosalind brings a preening and pretentious (and dishonest) boyfriend home from college and must eventually submit to her family’s negative assessment of him; and, at the heart of it all, Skye must address her own wounds and the way they have ruptured her relationship with Batty.

    The Penderwicks are a snowball rolling down the mountain, assimilating everybody into their tumbling juggernaut of love, growing larger and more chaotic as they pick up speed.

    The ordeals undergone are overcome; the fifth book finds the “family,” nine years later, a sprawling network of brothers, sisters, friends, fiancés, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Even an ex-boyfriend finds welcome. The Penderwicks are preparing for a wedding – another joining, another adding-to. Rosalind is getting married, and hey, why not make it two, it’s only appropriate to a Penderwick story to add one more, so throw in Skye and her Czech boyfriend Dušek for good measure. The story is told from the perspective of Lydia, the youngest Penderwick and the only child born to Martin and Iantha, who also makes a new friend, Alice. And at the story’s close she makes yet another – Jack, Alice’s brother – as they run ahead, “the three together, prancing, leaping, gamboling into the future.”

    The Penderwicks are a snowball rolling down the mountain, assimilating everybody into their tumbling juggernaut of love, growing larger and more chaotic as they pick up speed. That, in the end, is what it means to be a Penderwick. What else could something like the Penderwick family honor be based on than the illimitable force of love?

    Contributed By JeffReimer Jeff Reimer

    Jeff Reimer is a senior editor of Comment, and lives in Newton, Kansas

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