The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall
Apr 15, 2015
In my opinion, these books just keep getting better and better. While I've always loved the characters and the writing, I feel like the plots have improved with each one. This one dug deep, tugged hard at the heartstrings, and resolved some long buried issues.
Several years have passed since the vacation in Maine with Aunt Claire. Rosalind is a freshman in college, and Skye and Jane are teenagers. Batty is 10-almost-11, Ben is in the second grade, and Lydia (yes, a brand-new Penderwick!) is almost two. The Geiger boys across the street are both grown up too (Nick is in the military and Tommy is in college), and Jeffrey (still an honorary Penderwick) lives in Boston with his father.
With so many characters mulling about (and really, that Penderwick house always seems to be filled to bursting), it would have been so easy for this story to be chaotic or disorganized, but Jeanne Birdsall gave it all to Batty (keeping this series firmly fixed at the middle grade level). It felt similar to the other books in that we still get glimpses into the lives of the other family members (and happily, their voices are as distinct as ever), but the story belongs to Batty.
Her butterfly wings have long-since been abandoned, but she is still the same (shy, musical, and devoted to her family). When Mrs. Grunfeld (her music teacher at school) discovers her rare singing voice, Batty has big ideas of planning a Grand Eleventh Birthday Concert to surprise her family. So she sets out to make money in order to pay for her own voice lessons.
But things don't go as planned (there would be no story if they did). The only job she can find is walking the Ayvazian's obese dachshund, and she was hoping to avoid any pet-watching since she still feels guilt over Hound's death six months earlier. There's also trouble with the boyfriend Rosalind brings home from school, not to mention her mounting pile of unfinished book reports. But the real problem arises when Batty accidentally eavesdrops on a private conversation between Jeffrey and Skye (Jeffrey is madly in love with Skye, while Skye wants their relationship to stay rooted in loyal friendship). Skye, as insensitive as ever, says something that is indescribably cruel and hurtful. Granted, it wasn't meant for Batty's ears, but she heard it anyway, and it sends her into a deep chasm of despair and guilt.
At first, I didn't know how I felt about the leap in time, but I ended up loving it. It was so fun to see how Rosalind, Skye, and Jane were still very much themselves even while being on the brink of adulthood. Rosalind is still the practical, responsible one (even though I was very disappointed in her choice of boyfriends--I think her neglect of Batty was one of the things that hurt the most about this story, even though it was eventually resolved); Skye is still brusque and rude and not the least bit interested in love (I loved it when Jeffrey gave her a birthday present, and she said, "That's a small box. If it's jewelry, I'll kill you"); Jane, as you might expect, is constantly entertaining a houseful of boys, but she is interested in them more for the sake of research for her latest novel and less because she has any real interest in them. It was delightful to remember them as little girls but get to see what they're like in the next stage of life, a rare occurrence, especially in a book that doesn't grow with them (like Anne of Green Gables or Betsy-Tacy).
But still, there are those missing years, and I long to know all that happened during them. It's obvious that we missed out on some good times. And nowhere did I feel this hole more acutely than with Nick and Tommy Geiger. These rambunctious brothers were a part of The Penderwicks on Gardam Street but neither of the other two books (which take place during summer vacation). When this novel opens up, the Penderwicks are anxiously awaiting Nick's return home from being overseas. Even though he's only home for a brief three-week leave, he plays a big role in this story, and I kind of fell in love with his cocky-but-nevertheless-sincere self. I wish there were more stories with him and Tommy.
The emotional depth in this book is amazing. I felt Batty's pain and loneliness so acutely, especially when the ones that should have been there for her were not (Rosalind. Jeffrey. I'm looking at you). One of the most painfully realistic scenes was when Batty goes to Mrs. Grunfeld's office for a voice lesson. She can't sing because one, she can't stop crying but two, because her worry and anxiety have caused her to tighten up so much that no sound will come out. Mrs. Grunfeld is comforting but practical. She says they don't need to sing that day; they can just go over the rhythm of breathing. She begins the lesson, "but Batty had started to cry again. Mrs. Grunfeld wrapped her arms around the sobbing girl and kept hold of her for a long time." I remember being an eleven-year-old girl and not being able to stop the flow of tears when I felt overwhelmed by something (heck, I know what it's like to be a 30-year-old girl who can't stop crying), so that scene felt so real to me.
My one complaint is that, as with the other books, sometimes the drama just went a little over the top. For example, it's obvious from the get-go that Rosalind's boyfriend, Oliver, is a real loser, so the scene where he brings in these ridiculous bouquets for Skye and Rosalind and then yanks off Lydia's dandelion crown to replace it with roses (and she, in self defense smashes quesadillas all over him) seemed like a little too much. I have a feeling kids will love that scene though.
In an era where authors are cranking out one or two, sometimes even three, books a year, I can't tell you how impressed I am with Jeanne Birdsall's slow writing place. She takes her time to live with the story, and as a result, all of her books are tightly woven, beautiful little packages. Of course I'm dying for the fifth (and final! sob!) book to be out, but I would rather wait three years and have it match the others in quality than have a sloppy job in my hands right now. (Three years also gives me plenty of time to speculate: will the story take place in winter, the one season we haven't seen the Penderwicks in yet? Or will it be another summer novel since the Penderwicks do summer so very well? Will time elapse again? Will the story focus on Lydia (if that's the case, I have definite mixed feelings--she's not one of the original Penderwicks, after all). Will anything happen between Rosalind and Tommy? Skye and Jeffrey? So many things to anticipate!)
Oh wait, here I am wrapping up this post, and I forgot to mention my very, very favorite scene! Rather than go back and stick it in the middle, I'm just going to tell you about it here at the end (how's that for editing?). I told you about Jeffrey's birthday present to Skye (it was in a small box, but thankfully it wasn't jewelry--Jeffrey knows Skye better than that, even if he is in love with her), but I forgot to tell about Jeffrey's birthday present to Batty. Batty's birthday is a week after Skye's, and by that time, Jeffrey is back in Boston with strict orders from Skye not to come back until he can stop with the ridiculous love talk. So he sends Batty's present in the mail. And it is just so perfect. I won't say what it is because that is not a moment I would want ruined for anything. But just know, you're in for a treat.
If you haven't read these books, I would definitely start with the first one rather than jumping in with number four. And also, if you're wondering about audio vs. written, I don't know which I'd recommend. I listened to the first three, but I read this one, and I found both experiences to be equally pleasant. I wish these books had been around when I was a kid.
Have you read any of the Penderwicks' adventures? Which is your favorite book? Which Penderwick do you most relate to?