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.


Sam said...

Getting chased by a bull may not show up in a lot of books and movies these days -- although I have seen it on Kipper recently-- but present-day people still get chased by bulls.

In my days as a ruralite, I have been:
Chased by a bull (half-heartedly)
Charged by a panicked steer
Knocked down by a steer inside a derelict house. (It had wandered in an open door.)

In my latest encounter with a bull in an open field, the bull was laying down and never bothered to get up.

J. L. Bell said...

Cattle these days—what can you do?

Gail Gauthier said...

I can't recall ever being chased by a bull, but we were certainly brought up to fear them.

All the dated bits you mention here are the kinds of things I hate in books and movies. Yet I loved The Penderwicks. It's a mystery.