This is an overdue review of a book I’ve read a few months back. I’m posting my final contribution to our Girl Power bimonthly theme.
Modern pop culture portrays girl power in the looks of the Spice Girl and Pink—there’s this incredible edginess to them, an almost in-your-face quality. In some ways, they are caricatures of the concept of female power than they are actual manifestations of girl power. This is not to say they are pretenders. I doubt it. They are, if anything, the louder/bigger versions of girl power—an equally important element in communicating to the youth. However, the girl power I learned in books was less visual, it had similarities to the modern pop culture portrayal, but it was quieter in many ways, more ingrained in the stubbornness of the female character and in their insistence to follow their dreams and to be true to themselves. These stubborn female characters filled many of my summers with dreams of being able to do the same. I suppose that is why to this day, books like Little Women, Daddy Long Legs, and even Anne of Green Gables hold a special place in my heart. My love for these books made falling in love with Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks come naturally.
There’s a sense of nostalgia and adventure to summer trips. It is even more nostalgic when it unfolds in the absence of the usual modern comforts of television, computers and cell phones. There is a greater element of the unknown and the unpredictable in a summer where your only source of amusement is your imagination. It is this kind of setting that our Penderwicks find themselves as they take a trip out of town for the summer. It is reminiscent of a more outdoorsy childhood where new friends are made as well as new mischiefs are hatched. The Penderwicks is a party favor filled with these nostalgic things—of sisters, of neighbors, of new friends, of pets and of new crushes. It is this summer trip to a beautiful estate called Arundel that lets loose the Penderwick sisters’ sense of adventure and mischief.
The Penderwicks are composed of four sisters—Rosalind, Jane, Skye and Batty. They lost their mother at a young age, leaving their biologist father to be their primary caregiver. The set-up alone screams havoc, but with Motherly Rosalind, things are kept in order most of the time. Each Penderwick sister has her own personality. No two are alike. It is this individuality and their relationship that reminds me of Alcott’s March Sisters. There’s the mother-like, the stubborn one, the writer, and the playful youngest. The sisters each fall into specific roles that in good days work like clockwork, but on a summer trip can only mean a clash of personality and a clash with their cold Mrs. Tifton whose gardens everyone must stay out of.
I am the youngest of five siblings and the youngest of three sisters. When it comes to sisters, I’m quite familiar with the dynamics. They can be the best of friends, the worst of enemies, and of course the boiling pot of crazy. It is this, I guess, that contributes to my affinity towards these lovely Penderwick sisters.
Know thy Ground
As they get themselves intertwined with Jeffrey Tifton, the closet pianist son of Mrs. Tifton, the sisters find themselves face to face with cold Mrs. Tifton, whose nose is too upturned to know its place. The girls are shooed like flies and treated as unworthy companions to Jeffrey. However, the Penderwick sisters know girl power and they stand their ground. In one occasion as Mrs. Tifton speaks a litany of criticism on the Penderwick sisters to Jeffrey, Skye, upon hearing interrupts and says:
“You can’t talk about my family like that! Take it back now! I dare because I’m a Penderwick. But you wouldn’t know anything about that! You couldn’t in a million years understand anything about my mother. You’re not good enough. She would never have left us on purpose. She died. Did you hear me? My mother is DEAD!”
It is their sense of justice, their sense of right, and knowing who they are that makes this a book worthy of the Girl Power theme. Girl Power isn’t just about being able to do what boys do – it’s about being able to stand your ground when you know you are in the right. It is being able to be comfortable with who you are and being able to confidently tell someone, she is wrong, because that’s the truth. And yes, Skye sort of reminds me of redhead Anne and even at time Jo March.
Rose to be Themselves
In the end, I think, girls with inherent girl power aren’t born. They are raised by parents who support their children through it all. While the novel itself portrays a father obsessed about plants and erudition, he isn’t completely an absentee father. In fact, it is especially at the latter part of the novel that we see the way the father raises his kids.
Jane, the third sister is an aspiring writer. Upon learning Mrs. Tifton’s boyfriend was a publisher, she goes and gives him the drafts of her story only to be rejected and insulted. And like any rejected young writer, she tears the pages and cries her heart out. Jane starts saying she isn’t any good. It is here, we find her father say the right thing at the right time:
“Why, Jane, that’s simply not true. You’re a superb writer and your new book is a tour de force…my sweet, mad daughter, Dexter doesn’t publish books. He publishes a magazine about cars…Jane-o you’re much better than good. You have a rare and marvelous gift for words. And your imagination! Do you remember what your mother used to say (That my imagination is the eighth wonder of the world)?”
The Father allowed his children to be themselves, to grow independently, but still care enough for their welfare and be there when they can’t take it anymore. Real girl power starts at home and Mr.Penderwick and the late Mrs. Penderwick did wonders.
The Penderwicks is about family, it’s about the different ways a parent expresses their love. It’s about sisterhood and friendship. It’s about growing up and facing up to your fears and being honest about who you are. It’s about summer, and the way the unpredictable adventures lead to inevitable growth. I fell in love with the book because they reminded me of my own summers, of my own growing pains, and even of my own self-discovery.
2005 National Book Award Winner, Junior Library Guild Selection, Children’s Book Sense Top 10 Pick, Nick Jr. Magazine Best Book of the Year, Child Magazine Best Book of the year, Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, 2005 Kirkus Reviews Editors’ Choice, Booklist Editors’ Choice, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 51 (35)