Showing posts with label AUTHOR Jeanne Birdsall. Show all posts
Showing posts with label AUTHOR Jeanne Birdsall. Show all posts

12 February 2009

Penderwicks Under the Influence

Page 1 of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women: “‘Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”

Page 1 of Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks: “...what is summer without a trip to somewhere special?”

And thus begins the story of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, who live with their mother--or rather the story of Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty, along with their father.

They meet a delightful and rich boy next door, Laurie Jeffrey, and deal with the difficulties of being so poor that they can only have a large warm house and lots of books and clothes but not a huge house with loyal servants like Laurie Jeffrey.

As you might guess, I found it impossible not to think of Alcott's March sisters when reading The Penderwicks. The oldest of the four girls is loving, responsible Rosalind instead of loving, responsible Meg. At bottom is baby Batty, who dreams of marrying the boy next door, instead of Amy, who eventually does. In the middle, noble dying Beth isn't an acceptable role model in today's culture, so there's no equivalent to her. Instead, Jo has been split into two sisters: Skye gets the spit-in-their-eye spunk, and Jane gets the novelistic ambitions.

Of course, Birdsall hasn't been shy about acknowledging her influences. The book itself name-checks Alcott, Patricia MacLachlan, E. Nesbit's Bastables, Edward Eager, and a certain tornado in Kansas. The author went further in this interview with Little Willow:

When I was 10 or so, I learned that Edward Eager wrote his wonderful set of books (Half Magic, Knight's Castle, Magic by the Lake, etc.) partly in tribute to the great E. Nesbit (Five Children and It, The Enchanted Castle, The Adventures of the Treasure Seekers, etc.). Since I loved these authors, I vowed that, when I grew up, I would try to write books that would be tributes to both of them. And though I didn't start writing until I was very grown up (in my 40s), I did go back to Eager and Nesbit for inspiration, with a lot of Louisa May Alcott and some Frances Hodgson Burnett thrown in, plus a bunch of others.
On her website Birdsall says:
I also borrow from other books, especially the ones I loved best when I was young. The idea of four sisters came from Little Women. Batty’s adventure with the bull came from Emily of New Moon. There are other examples, but that would be giving too much away!
Paradoxically, that would be giving away what the book has already borrowed.

Reviewers noted the many influences on The Penderwicks. Some asked whether the book holds more appeal for adults who recall reading those books than for kids. For example, here's the Common Sense review:
it's a book calculated to warm the hearts of aging Boomers, and remind them of the books they read when they were kids. Whether it will warm the hearts of many of today's children remains to be seen. It will be loved by the kind of kids, if there are any left, who go into a trance over Little Women, The Moffats, and others...
In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Birdsall herself said: “the independents had really gotten behind it. It was a book they could hand to every adult who walked in, needing a book for a child.” And of course it won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

The Penderwicks struck me as the literary equivalent of a Freddie Bartholomew movie, beloved of aunts everywhere. Of course, some young readers enjoy it very much as well. But many of its most enthusiastic fans seem to be those adults, "needing a book for a child" that reminded them of the books they remembered from childhood.

In particular, I wonder how The Penderwicks got such a buoyant critical reception when other books have been criticized for borrowing too much. I Googled the words "derivative" and "Eragon" and came up with 23,200 hits; in fact, there are 200 hits for "Eragon" and "hopelessly derivative" alone. Yet when I Googled "derivative" and "Penderwicks," I found just over 100 webpages.

Is that difference because Birdsall was transparent about her influences, thus making The Penderwicks an homage rather than an imitation? Because her prose style is quite good? Because she personally didn't seem so callow as teen-aged author Christopher Paolini? Because he had more sales and a movie deal, and thus became a larger target? Or because Birdsall chose to replicate what's perceived as a higher class of literature, particularly beloved for children's-book reviewers?

09 February 2009

And the Consequences Were Dreadful

In my taxonomy of narrative voices, the one Jeanne Birdsall chose for The Penderwicks is omniscient. The Point of View shifts among the four Penderwick sisters as needed. But that’s not all: the narrator even tells us their dog's thoughts, and assures us he has “his own peculiar brand of ESP.”

This narrator also editorializes, developing an intrusive Presence (not that that's necessarily a bad thing). For instance, the text asks, "Is there such a thing as a perfect week?" At another point it intones:

Mrs. Tifton caught Batty all by herself, and the consequences were dreadful.
Actually, the consequences are a lost rabbit. Which doesn’t stay lost long.

And that brings me to the quality of The Penderwicks’s narrative that I found hardest to get over. Throughout the book one little problem after another arises and gets resolved within a couple of paragraphs after the whole family realizes what's wrong. The only anxious moments are when people don't realize there's trouble, or one character is trying to keep a secret.

Thus, at the beginning of a long paragraph on page 138, the children set off to find the lost rabbit; twelve lines later, eldest sister Rosalind has found it. Similarly, when baby sister Batty gets lost, that psychic dog finds her as soon as he gets out of his cage.

In effect, The Penderwicks recreates the stop-start rhythm of books written decades ago as magazine serials, with each installment a self-contained episode. Except many of those episodes are very, very short.

One potential source of overarching tension is the sisters’ encounters with that most challenging of creatures, boys. But the two boys they meet are paragons for these girls. One is into gardening, Civil War history, baseball, and long walks in the moonlight. The other likes music, soccer, and To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck. Both are nice to four-year-olds and at ease with adults. I'm not saying I disagree with these boys' tastes. But I don't see them lighting things on fire or, aside from a briefly embarrassing crush, causing the girls any trouble.

That leaves only one tough conflict running through the book: the disagreement between younger paragon Jeffrey and his mother over her boyfriend, military school, and having friends who are merely from the upper middle class. In the end, those two characters resolve their differences by talking to each other off stage. The Penderwick girls end up as mere bystanders in their own book.

COMING UP: The anxiety of influences? No, just influences.

06 February 2009

Penderwicks in the Past

Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks is nominally set in the present day. Yet the omniscient narrator starts: “For a long time after that summer...” In my taxonomy of narrative voices, I call the distance between event and narration Perspective, and this sets up a “long” Perspective--meaning the events are in a distant past.

How old-fashioned is The Penderwicks? The kids play soccer, a relatively recent touch for Americans. There's a computer owned by the girls’ father. Yet I don't recall any mention of video games. Not only do the girls not have cell phones, but they rarely use the land line. Television is just something the boy next door looks at when he has nothing better to do, and what he likes most is "this great old black-and-white movie on television called To Kill a Mockingbird."

But the old-fashioned quality is much more than a matter of technology. It's in the diction of that narrative voice, which says things like, "And laugh they would," and, "and the consequences were dreadful." And it's in the story's milieu.

This 2005 novel includes cheerful servants! Churchie, the cook/housekeeper next door, alters and sews four dresses in a week, on top of her other work. (She also shares her employer's deepest gossip.) There's Cagney, a young gardener who's also a dreamboat. And the vegetable seller, as far as I recall, never actually sells any vegetables; he just happily gives them away.

On the other side of the class scale, an actual British knight appears to judge a garden contest--in the Berkshires. The girls’ father drops phrases in Latin. Yes, he’s a professor, but a professor of botany; Latin hasn’t been the language of science for over a century.

But the clearest sign that this book is a throwback is when baby sister Batty is menaced by a bull in a field. I haven’t seen that plot point used since Song of the South (1946), and that was supposedly set half a century before. Birdsall herself acknowledges that she borrowed the moment from Emily of New Moon (1923).

COMING UP: The Penderwicks's all-knowing narrator and all-is-well plotting.