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.


Gail Gauthier said...

You know, you make this book sound just dreadful, and I can't really contest any of your points.

I will say, though, that the omniscient narrator with point of view shifts was a big draw as far as I was concerned. First person is done to death in children's literature and even when you do find a third person book, it usually has a point of view character. It was a relief to read The Penderwicks just for that novelty.

J. L. Bell said...

The magic didn’t work for me. What can I say?

I didn’t mind the omniscient narrator and shifting points of view. In fact, I found the shifts smoother than those Philip Pullman pulls off, which can leave me whiplashed (but still fascinated).

I didn’t like the archness of the narrative voice, which seemed at times to verge on parody rather than homage.

Anonymous said...

I kind of get all your points about it, and yet I still loved The Penderwicks (and its sequel) and my nine yr old daughter (who is a reluctant reader) loved it even more. It seems to be old-fashioned enough to be a completely refreshing contrast to the types of story arc and narrative in most children's books these days.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the other comments: your points are good ones. But... but... I love this book! I think part of its charm is that it honors children by taking these non-catastrophes seriously. A lost rabbit can be disastrous, and twelve lines is a long time in the life of a four-year-old. I remember some half hours in childhood that lasted longer than whole years of my adult life.

I like your point about upper vs. upper middle class, though.