Summer is in full swing; and anticipating a vacation is a tantalizing prospect, whether it is far away or as close as the nearest good book. Delving into a worthy series is the perfect way to fill the long days of summer break, and there is no better literary getaway than a vacation with The Penderwicks.
This endearing series by Jeanne Birdsall begins with the four Penderwick sisters: from responsible twelve-year-old Rosalind to clever, cantankerous Skye; dramatic Jane to a precious preschooler nicknamed Batty. Their mother died of cancer not long after Batty’s birth, and the girls – all so very different in age and personality – are fiercely loyal to their beloved father and to one another. Originally the family is completed by Mr. Penderwick – a dear parent and something of an absent-minded-professor sort who speaks in Latin when he’s happy – and a lovably hapless dog named Hound.
The first book in the series finds the Penderwicks on their way to a vacation cottage in New England after their usual summer home becomes unavailable. Actually they’re lost, which the reader quickly realizes is pretty typical for Penderwick family outings. But for all the sisters’ good-natured bickering, they soon agree that their new summer haven at Arundel Cottage (when they find it) is the stuff of sweet dreams. With a picture-perfect cottage on the grounds of a grand estate, there is plenty of room for each of the girls to explore her own idea of an adventure… not to mention her own room.
As the Penderwicks settle in they meet the host of characters who frequent Arundel and begin to discover its secrets. They make fast friends with Churchie the housekeeper and Cagney the gardener, but live in dread of the haughty woman who owns the place: Mrs. Tifton, a nasty woman who lives unhappily in the shadow of her ancestors. Of course, most interesting of all is her sheltered son Jeffrey, who rushes to drink from the wholesome normalcy of the Penderwicks like a man dying of thirst.
The books follow the Penderwicks over the ensuing fifteen years, as the girls grow and Mr. Penderwick remarries and two new siblings are added to the brood, and finally the older girls themselves are ready to marry. Jeffrey finds some new hope for his future through his association with the family, and becomes an Honorary Penderwick. The story winds up at Arundel, where it first began. But wherever life finds them, it is their sweetness that makes them utterly irresistible. Whatever their own struggles with missing their mother, getting into trouble, discovering boys and worrying about their destinies; they treat each other and the people they meet with good manners and thoughtful decency. To be a Penderwick is to be principled and singularly unselfish; they are close-knit and kindly, imaginative and hospitable. As they bake brownies and concoct schemes for helping someone, the author guides the characters through their difficulties with tenderness, humor, and grace.
Of course no family is perfect, and lest any reader feel daunted by children who enjoy a supportive and harmonious family dynamic (not to mention the means to provide weeks-long vacations in charming cottages) I can vouch that the Penderwicks have their troubles too. The girls must each work through the circumstances of their lovely mother’s death, and face growing up without her guidance. (Skye is particularly rancorous, and develops a fear of relationships and an angry mistrust of marriage, which she gradually resolves.) Some of the fellows they become attached to are likable by the standards of the family, and others not so much. And the girls – along with their father – sometimes misunderstand each other. But ultimately they are a family, and problems both personal and Penderwick are handled lovingly together. And with so many family members at varying ages, readers at their own unique stage of life can surely delight in sharing their laughter and tears every step of the way.
In fact, the only thing I don’t care for about the Penderwicks is their propensity for keeping secrets; a staple in children’s books of this kind but increasingly problematic for modern families confronted by the threats of bullying, harassment, and trafficking. And yet the Penderwicks, though living at the present time, are blissfully free of the modern demands of social media and devices, and the books are wonderfully void of such references. The Penderwicks play, create, and dream as children should; and since their secret pledges are only to remain secret as long as they won’t hurt anyone, I suppose I can forgive them for hiding the occasional mishap or helpful stratagem from their dear father.
All told, The Penderwicks is a marvelous choice for girls from age 8 on up into the early teens. The four sisters are easily relatable, and their interactions with friends and family are winsome and appealing. Parents will appreciate the gentle wit and intelligence of the dialogue, and the loving, tidy kind of chaos that rules in their home (or vacation home, as the case may be). Don’t be surprised if you glance through the first book and end up reading the whole thing in an evening. After all, it’s summer; and who wouldn’t want to be a Penderwick?
If you liked this series you might also enjoy: All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor