[LISTENED TO: April 4, 2015] The Penderwicks
Everything about this book feels like it’s an old story–from the cover (which is consistent in all versions as far as I can tell) to the tone. It feels like a book that was set in perhaps the fifties or even the seventies. Until we learn that the father has a computer and you see that the book was written in 2005. Then you realize that Birdsall has simply captured an idyllic moment for a family and that although there are some trappings of modernism, it could be set at (nearly) any time (the computer is not really significant to the story).
Sarah had read the story and really liked it so she brought home the audio book and we all enjoyed listening to it. (How upsetting to have about 30 minutes left in the 6 hour story when we got to the airport for our vacation and had to wait a week to finish). The reader, Susan Danaker had a good selection of voices. Sarah didn’t like her voice for the littlest girl, but I thought it was cute. I was also impressed by her male voices–all similar (since they were from the same part of the country) but with enough different inflections so you could tell them apart.
So what is this story about? Well, it is about the Penderwick Family. Mr Penderwick is a scholar (he says Latin phrases to the girls all the time and they are not translated–so brush up!). He has four daughters: Rosalind (12), Skye (11), Jane (10) and Batty (4). The girls’ mother died shortly after giving birth to Batty (but not because of giving birth to Batty, she had cancer). I always think it’s weird when a parent is dead in a story, especially if it said death is designed just to give the living parent a romantic interest. But that doesn’t happen in this story. Their mother is dead, and the girls have to move on without her, but it also brings them together. Rosalind more or less falls into the mothering role (poor girl) and their mother’s loss is felt throughout the book.
Each of the girls is given a main characteristic–Rosalind is the sensible one, Skye is the energetic tomboyish one, Jane is the dreamy one (she’s a writer) and Batty is, well she’s 4, so she’s a troublemaker (and yet is also quite accomplished). Oh and there’s also their dog, Hound. The girls seem intent on protecting their dad from any trouble, and they have secret meetings (The MOOPS) during which they agree to keep each others’ secrets and not get anyone in trouble unless they are in danger. I happen to really like when families work together, so this appealed to me greatly.
But again, what about the plot. Well, the Penderwick family is off on vacation. Since their dad is a professor he gets a summer off. They usually go to this place or that place but this year they are going somewhere new. They are going to Arundel Hall. Arundel is a sprawling estate in Massachusetts. There is an enormous mansion, and on the property is a cottage which the Penderwicks have rented. Each girl gets a bedroom and there are gardens and grasses and fields and all manner of beautiful things to see.
It also turns out that there is a boy on the property. Well, two boys actually. The first is Cagney (a very strange name, in my opinion). He is the caretaker for the estate–gardening mostly. He is old enough to drive and he is hunky (and of course Rosalind develops a crush on him). He is super kind to all of the girls and he not only has lengthy garden talks with Mr Penderwick (an amateur botanist himself) but he also allows Batty to play with his pet rabbits.
The other boy is Jeffrey. Jeffrey is the son of the estate owner, Mrs. Tifton. Mrs Tifton is spoken of in hushed terms because she is stern and unsmiling. And the girls hope to never meet her. When they inevitably do, she proves to be a lot worse than they even imagined. But they don’t see her too often, and Jeffrey proves to be a lot of fun especially for Jane and Skye who are about his age.
There’s also Churchie the kindly cook who is full of sweets and delicious food and kind words for everyone. I would have liked more of her!
So what could be the plot? Well the main plot is that Mrs Tifton has plans for Jeffrey (which involve military school) and plans to get married to a kind of sleazy guy (who really wants Jeffrey sent to the boarding school). The girls, free spirits all, really encourage him to follow his dreams–he is an amazing pianist and wants to be a conductor someday. The girls hate the thought of him going to a military school and tell him to speak up for himself. And Mrs Tifton hates them for it.
But what can four girls who will be leaving in a few weeks do to help poor Jeffrey in his interminable future?
In addition to that main plot there are lots of smaller adventures–a bull, a garden party, a birthday party, an amazing sounding attic full of old things, and escaped rabbits.
The story is charming and delightful–a little sad, but mostly fun. The characters are maybe a wee bit too obviously delineated (Jane and Skye are polar opposites and will always act like it), but it does make it easier to keep them straight. And the voice of the narrator (not the reader) is spot on for an idyllic summer story. It was a charming and delightful listen.
Birdsall really captures the storybooks of old and makes everything seem magical and possible in Arundel.
One of the most fascinating things about the book is actually about the author: Jeanne Birdsall first decided to become a writer when she was ten years old, but it took her until she was forty-one to get started.
There are now several more books in the series (I gather there will be five in total). Sarah has read them and says that the girls grow up in them. I’m not so sure I want to read about them growing up, but I am intrigued enough by the first book to hear more.