Friday, June 1, 2018

2019 Contenders: The Penderwicks At Last, by Jeanne Birdsall

Lydia Penderwick, now eleven years old and just as exuberant as she was as a toddler in The Penderwicks in Spring, has heard tales of Arundel all her life. Now, as the Penderwick diaspora converges for a long-awaited wedding, she gets to experience the magical estate firsthand.

18498292Jeanne Birdsall walks a tricky tightrope in The Penderwicks At Last. One one hand, she has been adamant from the beginning that this series will stay middle grade, and that each entry in the series will focus on the characters that make it a middle grade book. This will be no Anne of Green Gables, following its original protagonist well into adulthood. On the other hand, the readers of the series are devoted to the four older sisters and deeply invested in their various fates. Will Skye marry Jeffrey?! (There are apparently some people on Goodreads who feel VERY STRONGLY about this.) Will Batty marry Jeffrey? (That one has been my daughter's and my prediction since the beginning.) Will Skye become an astrophysicist?

Setting the book at Arundel is a elegant way to solve the problem. Seeing a familiar place through new eyes provides a way to balance the narrative between past and present, and a wedding is a classic narrative device for assembling the whole cast of characters. And they are indeed assembled: Aunt Claire and Turon; Alec and his new dog (RIP Hoover); gardener Cagney (now a paterfamilias). Even Mrs. Tifton is (hilariously) along for the ride.

Birdsall provides enough resolution of old tensions and strong hints about future plans to satisfy fans, while keeping the focus firmly on Lydia and her concerns. Most of the drama with the older Penderwicks sisters takes place in the background, filtered through Lydia's perspective. Meanwhile, the iconic places in Arundel are recognizable, but often changed. There are sheep in the field of the enormous bull who almost trampled Batty, and the manicured lawns have been turned into meadows where bobolinks (and eleven-year-olds) can hide.

There are new inhabitants as well - mainly Cagney's family, with whom Lydia spends most of her time - but also, oddly, Batty's ex-boyfriend and his amazing three-legged great dane. It can be a risky proposition to introduce new characters in a series finale, but the new additions are as well-drawn as the old favorites. (One minor quibble: the Kirkus review mentioned the default whiteness of the book and series, and that is certainly true, but I was more disappointed by the heteronormativity. I had really headcanoned Skye as a lesbian, and possibly on the asexual spectrum. So there, Skeffrey shippers.)

The novel is as much a meditation on time as anything else. Birdsall seems to understand that we want Arundel and the Penderwicks to stay the same forever (I honestly can't even talk about this book out loud without crying), but she won't let them remain in stasis. Like Lydia, we have to prance, leap, and gambol into the future.

(As for Newbery chances: doubtful. "Doesn't have to stand alone" be damned,  the committee is not going to choose this elegiac series-ender for a gold sticker.)

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