Of all the children’s books that I’ve read in recent years it’s Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, And A Very Interesting Boy that takes me back to the stories of my childhood. There is an ineffable something about Birdsall’s chronicle that goes beyond the words that she uses to tell it.
The four Penderwick sisters range from age 4 to 12. Rosalind is the the eldest of the motherless brood and it’s obvious that she’s the eldest, protective as she is of her sisters, and attuned as she is to the vagaries of their moods and personalities. Batty is “the littlest,” and the shyest of the lot who never goes anywhere without her orange and black butterfly wings. The closet between her room and Rosalind’s is to her a “secret passage.” Skye, the second eldest, is orderly, organized, and also hot-tempered. Jane is the dreamer and the writer with a flair for the dramatic.
Now, if Rosalind had been the first to discover that tunnel, she would have noticed that it was too neatly trimmed and prickle-free to be there by mistake, and she would have figured that someone used it often and that someone probably wasn’t Mrs. Tifton. If Jane had been the first, she, too, would have realized that natural forces hadn’t formed that tunnel. Her explanation for it would have been nonsense—an escape route for convicts on the run or talking badgers—but at least she would have thought about it. But this was Skye. She only thought, I need a way through the hedge, and here it is. And then she plunged.
There’s also a cottage with “a front porch, pink climbing roses, and lots of trees for shade,” a dog called Hound, a cook called Churchie who bakes gingerbread that makes everyone “forget that they had [just] eaten breakfast,” and a boy called Jeffrey who the four sisters befriend. The sisters and Jeffrey get into all kinds of scrapes. Their hijinks involve a bull, two rabbits, and also a soccer ball (unfortunately, not all at the same time). At the same time the adults in the story know their proper place and lie low till they are truly needed. In short, this is the sort of story you wish you had lived through.
While there is an overarching plot that involves everyone, each of the children also have their own mini adventure that is easily absorbed in the narrative whole. These individual storylines firm up the reader’s sense of the characters and the world that these characters occupy.
Birdsall gets children and understands their dynamics with one another. (I can’t shake off the feeling that there really is a bunch of Penderwicks out there). The sisters love one another and find strength in each other but there’s also a bit of chafing at being part of a sisterhood.
Here’s Skye and Batty, who’ve always been a little uneasy around one another, walking back home, after a particularly nasty exchange with Mrs. Tifton, Jeffrey’s mother:
“I have a question.” Batty was peering up from under the brim of her rain hat.
“Am I odd? Is there something wrong with me, like Mrs. Tifton said?”
Skye knelt down on the wet grass and looked right into Batty’s eyes. “No, you stupid idiot, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re perfect. Mrs. Tifton doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh,” said Batty.
“Do you have any more questions?”
“Not right now.”
“Then let’s get you home to Daddy.” Skye took hold of Batty’s hand and held it all the way back to the cottage.
The resolution of the central conflict is so in keeping with the spirit of the tale. No precociousness or sudden burst of brilliance, just a little courage and muddling through the best you can (with some help from Mr. Penderwick). The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, And A Very Interesting Boy is kind, funny and has a good old-fashioned warmth to it that will linger on long after you’re done reading it.
A MOOPS was a Meeting Of Older Penderwick Sisters. Rosalind, Skye, and Jane called it MOOPS to keep Mr. Penderwick from knowing what they were talking about. Batty wasn’t supposed to know either, but she knew about MOPS, which was a Meeting of Penderwick Sisters, because she was always invited to them.