Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sister act

The lovely thing about Jeanne Birdsall's Penderwick books is how they seem to effortlessly evoke an old-fashioned time of summer days with no structure but always with plenty to do, while having their feet somewhat firmly in the present. (No one in the family seems to have a cell phone, for which I am grateful, but it does seem a little odd.) I read the first two Penderwicks, but decided (for no particular reason) to listen to Book 3: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette.

If you don't know the Penderwicks, they are four motherless sisters -- Rosalind (the oldest, the responsible one), Skye (the scientist), Jane (the writer), and Batty (the baby, as yet unformed) -- living somewhere in western Massachusetts. In the first book, they met a fatherless boy named Jeffrey, who has since become a dear friend and honorary brother, and whose wealthy and distant mother has since sent him off to boarding school. Penderwick pere, after spending many years as a widower, has recently remarried a widow with a baby boy. (That was the second book.)

This summer, the doctors Penderwick are off to present scientific papers and have a brief honeymoon. Rosalind (kind of a busybody who is the OAP - Oldest Available Penderwick) is spending a vacation with her best friend in New Jersey. The three remaining sisters are going to Point Mouette in Maine with their father's sister, Aunt Claire. Skye must now assume the role of OAP and she knows that she is not terribly suited to the part. She drowns the long list of instructions provided by Rosalind and can now only read the part that says "blow up Batty."

The sisters are thrilled to discover that Jeffrey will be joining them in Maine. But when a neighbor's dog trips Aunt Claire and she ends up with a severely twisted ankle, Skye knows that things will only go down from here. It's only two weeks, but much happens and their world is briefly and poignantly set on its ear. All rights itself by the end, as it should be.

I'm pretty sure that I would have wanted to be a Penderwick sister if I were reading about them as a tween. All that fierce love and acceptance, and "real-life" adventures that just seem so interesting. Sure, lessons are provided, but they are so heartfelt and often so amusing that you don't even mind. The book is so easy to listen to, its language is so natural. The descriptions are vivid -- I could see that small house at the end of the road, butting up against the pine forest. When the sisters go out on the ocean, the sun was beating down on my head and I could smell the salt air.

Susan Denaker reads the book. She's an experienced narrator, but I've not heard her before. I really enjoy how she created an individual voice for each sister -- not particularly easy since Skye and Jane are just a year apart in age. Skye's sensibility and Jane's volatile emotions are nicely delineated by Skye's more grounded voice and Jane's flighty, higher register. If six-year-old Batty is a little babyish for me, well, so be it. A narrator's got to sound babyish sometimes.

Denaker portrays a large cast of characters with interest and appropriateness. This is a novel about people you or I might know, so no one sounds bizarre or ridiculous simply to provide differention. There are some moments of high emotion in this novel and she plumbs those emotions honestly. Tears are shed and I heard them in her voice. It's a lovely performance.

The March sisters, the Melendys, the girls at Miss Minchin's, the Ingalls girls, Nancy, Bess and George; and for older readers, the Bennets and the Dashwoods, even Dorothea and Celia Brooke (yes! I've read Middlemarch!). I'm sure there are so many more I'm forgetting ... but I do enjoy classic novels about sisters, or a reasonable facsimile thereof (and the occasional brother). Count the Penderwicks as a modern classic.

[Birdsall says that Point Mouette was inspired by Boothbay Harbor in Maine. This stereoscopic photograph of the Harbor was taken by O.M. Jones in the late 19th century. It lives in the New York Public Library's Photography Collection and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
Narrated by Susan Denaker
Listening Library, 2011. 7:32

1 comment:

JoAnn said...

Hello! I found my way here from Devourer of Books. The Penderwick books sound delightful, and I already know Susan Denaker is wonderful (I listened to her read Before You Know Kindness several years ago)... a perfect pairing.