When I was in college, I bought a set of tarot cards. I wondered if they were real or if I would need to put on a magic show of sorts in order to get people to believe in them. I studied how to read a tarot card spread. As I learned, I realized that tarot cards weren’t magic. They are true because all humans must go through the human experience which includes many similarities. Tarot cards represent these human experiences. First, there are four minor arcana in tarot cards which represent the elements of fire, water, air, and earth. Then, there are the major arcana cards which are stages of life that all humans have to go through. Some of these include: The Fool (freedom and adventure), The Magician (realizing potential), The High Priestess (trusting intuition), The Devil (restrictions and entrapment), and Death (the end of something).
In Sara Pennypacker’s new novel, Pax, we are brought into the intimate world of 12 year old Peter and his 5 year old fox Pax as they go through many major arcana phases that involve all of the minor arcana. Their relationship has been built on trust and loyalty which must withstand much pain and confusion when Peter’s father insists Peter abandon Pax before moving. Pennypacker’s masterful storytelling gives us a unique entry into their minds as they try to get back to each other across miles, species, and the war torn earth.
The effect of war on animals is one that was documented in the beautiful picture book Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya. It is this book that inspired Pennypacker to write about Pax so that children could remember that “just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.” This quote is how the story of Pax begins. It is how Pennypacker shared the story of war with children so that they might learn how war affects eighteen million children outside of America.
The concept of connectedness as an inherent need for living organisms is told through the Buddhist idea that real diversity within union is expressed in the saying “two but not two”. When Vola teaches this concept to Peter, he immediately understands that we must remain who we are as individuals but stay connected to who we are with others. Peter’s connection to Pax is two but not two throughout the novel and the reader is left to know without a doubt that they will find each other or die trying. That children connect to their pets is not a new theme or idea in the literary world, but Peter and Pax are surely one of the best examples. In fact, Pennypacker herself explains that she thought it might be easier for children to read about how animals were affected by war instead of how children are affected by war especially when the animal was so loved by a child.
Pennypacker is not just a great storyteller, she also has the ability to develop characters worthy of remembering for years to come. I will never forget Vola, the woman who teaches Peter about love, as I won’t forget Liesel from Zusak’s The Book Thief. Both female characters hold the understanding that books, food, art, and love will help humans overcome the ravages of war.
My teacher thoughts on this amazing book are that she does a perfect job of bringing the reader to edge of the pain of war without taking it too far and she does so much to show children the value of being human. One of my favorite parts is when Peter realizes what Vola has been to him and who she is as a person in the world.
And suddenly Vola’s secret philosophy card flashed in his mind: “I would have been a good teacher.” She was right about that. He thought about how easily she suggested techniques in his drills without making a big deal of anything. How she had him watch while she carved, then let him figure out things for himself. How she asked him questions about everything and didn’t answer for him.