When I first picked this book up, the premise made me nervous. I have grown to know and love the Penderwicks over the first three books in this series, but in this fourth book, we’ve moved five years forward. Rosalind is in college, Batty and Ben are the focus of the story, and there’s a new Penderwick. Worst of all, when the story opens, Hound, the Penderwicks’ beloved dog, has just died. With all of these changes, how could I hope to love this book nearly as much?
Well, really, I should have known. The Penderwicks are a little bit magic, and Jeanne Birdsall doesn’t falter. Batty has never been my favorite of the sisters, and now she is. There’s the bittersweet feeling of some things ending and some things beginning, but woven through it all is the marvelous sense of family and both the stresses and warmth that entails.
Batty, at the beginning of the story is both grief and guilt-stricken. She can’t face the idea of another dog, ever, and with everything in her family still changing around her, the loss of Hound runs very deep. Besides all of this, she feels very strongly that she should have been able to love him a little better, to keep him around a little longer. Although as adult readers, this may seem obviously impossible, it reminded me quite a bit of the deepest fears and anguishes of childhood, these things that can’t possibly be said.
And there’s the fact that Batty is discovering her own talents as a musician, in a not-very-musical family. Jeffrey, the family friend, has been her support and mentor in this, but he is in school and not with them very often. When he is with them, the not-quite-romance between him and Skye keeps getting in Batty’s way.
Most of all, Batty’s place in the family feels almost tenuous. She alone of the original Penderwick siblings does not remember their mother, and although her new brother Ben shares the death of a parent, he doesn’t seem haunted by it in the same way. (I loved how warm and natural the relationship between Batty and Ben seems.) With Lydia, the baby, a demanding presence in the household, with Rosalind away and Jane and Skye distracted by their own concerns, with the Penderwick parents busy, and Hound gone, Batty is in danger of slipping through the cracks.
And for most of the book, she does slip through. This was really quite hard to read, as I wanted everything to be okay for her. She’s trying so hard to make sense of who she is and where she fits into the world; she’s trying to deal with both the fresh grief of Hound’s death and the long-ago echo of her mother’s. This is, even more than the other Penderwick books, a really emotional read. I cried quite a bit, both at individual moments in the book and through the whole denouement. (I am habitually weepy, but also this is a very RIGHT IN THE FEELS-y book.) At the same time, I never felt emotionally manipulated or like Birdsall was adding unnecessary complications.
There are several important characters in this one, including Ben. But most of all, I felt for Batty, and her attempts to define who she is as herself and as a member of the Penderwicks. It’s a beautiful story and one I loved. There’s one more Penderwicks book to come after this, and I can’t wait to see what happens.
Book source: ARC from Midwinter
Book information: 2015, Random House; juvenile/middle grade contemporary fiction