Amazon called The Penderwicks "perfect for fans of Noel Streatfield or Edward Eager." I can't speak to Noel Streatfield (an author on my always growing list of things to read), and I have read and liked Edward Eager. But I think The Penderwicks reminded me more of Eleanor Estes's Pye family, and even more so of Little Women. I've never actually read Little Women - I know, that's a sacrilege, that I hope (see above: Noel Streatfield) to remedy someday (I'm thinking of listening to it on audio). But one of my favorite movies of all time is Little Women starring Wynona Ryder. Additionally, the story is really in the American cultural consciousness after almost 150 years; we all know a little bit about the book and its four sisters. I don't think this makes me expert on Little Women by any means, but from what I know, I can pick out some of the similarities between the two works.
There are four sisters in both novels. Although Little Women has both parents living, the father is absent; in The Penderwicks the absent parent is the deceased mother. The oldest sister is both novels is a gentle caretaker; in Little Women she falls for an older man who lives next door to them; in The Penderwicks, Rosalind falls for Cagney (although there are definitely different outcomes). The four sisters in both books are very close knit and have their own set of inside jokes and slang. There is a rich boy who lives next door to both sets of sisters (Jeffery and Laurie). Skye Penderwick has some Jo March characteristics (tom boyish, opinionated); Jane Penderwick also shares some Jo March characteristics (imaginative writer). No Penderwick is like Beth (and no sister dies, at least in the first book); and the only commonality I can find between Amy March and Batty Penderwick is a funny bit where Jefferey saves Batty's life, and their father jokes that in some cultures, that means the savior is tied to the person he's saved, and Batty remarks that Jeffrey can marry her - very similar to Laurie and Amy in Little Women. There are other characters who revolve around the Penderwick sun who don't have Alcott doppelgangers, Mrs. Tifton and Aunt March have snobbery in common.
I'm not trying to say that The Penderwicks is a direct re-telling of Little Women (and for example, any more than The Graveyard Book is a direct re-telling of The Jungle Book). I think The Penderwicks serves an example of Birdall's admiration for Alcott's novel; she's not trying to make an exact copy, but she does inject some of what makes Little Women so great - the delightful sisterhood, the funny episodes - but definitely writes a unique and incredible novel all her own. In other words, this isn't a remake; these four sisters aren't carbon copies of the four March sisters. Rather, they are literary descendants of the March (and Alcott) ideal.
Mrs. Tifton alone proves that it isn't a remake. Superficially, she's a bitter bug in the ointment like Aunt March. But she's actually a fully developed adult character, often a rare bird in children's literature. There is this scene where Mrs. Tifton, angry at her son's devotion to the Penderwicks rather than her (that in itself a very adult thing) and in a litany of Penderwick faults, says that Rosalind is mooning around after Cagney, and that she will be disappointed by him in the end and lose her innocence: a very telling and adult thing to say in a children's book; it's psychologically and emotionally revealing in a way that adult characters in children's literature usually aren't. She's old fashioned in her snobbery (this whole book is old fashioned though), and really a quite horrible and unlikable character (hearing her being acted out even makes it worse; Denaker captures all of Mrs. Tifton's flaws). I called her several bad words at various times in the narrative - aloud. She's awful.
Believably small adventures, often in the form of embarrassments, is what this book is made up of. First love, a younger sister who wanders off into a field with a not-so-mad bull, a soccer ball kicked into the middle of a fancy garden party, an awful formal birthday party that require new dresses. It's also a lot about doing and especially saying the wrong things at the wrong time, and the chaos that often follows the impulsiveness of youth.
The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Delightful and believable small adventures, often in the form of embarrassments, is the meat and potatoes (or perhaps the gingerbread with whipped cream) of this book, and wonderfully so. First love, a younger sister who wanders off into a field with a not-so-mad (but still scary) bull, a soccer ball kicked into the middle of a fancy garden party, an awful formal birthday dinner that requires new dresses. Lots of impulsively doing and especially saying the wrong things at the wrong time, and the gentle chaos that ensues. The Penderwick sisters are the descendants of several old fashioned children's novels and series of old - The Pyes (Ginger Pye and The Saturdays (The Saturdays), but especially Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy - and Laurie too (Little Women. There are shades of Alcott in the corners and cubbyholes of this story, but only in the very best of ways.
I listened to the audio version of this book, which is excellently narrated by Susan Denaker.
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