Pax is a middle grade novel by Sara Pennypacker about a boy and a fox who embark upon a mythic journey to reunite after Pax is abandoned in the woods. Structurally, Pax is the middle grade equivalent of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Though this story is classic mythical structure, there are shades of the Female Mythic Form, as the main character Peter (who happens to be male), thinks and feels his way through his journey rather than engaging in battle after swashbuckling battle.
MORE ON THE STORY STRUCTURE OF PAX
Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favorite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. This is remarkable because it feels, in some ways, like a much more modern picture book than that. This is all to do with Steig’s voice. Pearl is at no point mortally afraid. We know and she knows that this is a storybook world in which good will always triumph. Steig writes knowingly to the reader — we all know this is a modern fairytale. So when he writes of the baddie, ‘He wore a sprig of lilac in his lapel, he carried a cane, and he was grinning so the whole world could see his sharp teeth’, he is holding nothing back from the reader.
Steig’s distinctive voice is also achieved by his choice of vocabulary, which is by turns highly specific against ‘fairytale familiar’ (as above:
On Cobble Road she stopped at Maltby’s barn and stood gawking as the old gaffers pitched their ringing horseshoes and spat tobacco juice.
Courage is scared of birds. So how is going to possibly deal with a formidable opponent like a shady fox?
Quite often in a comic story there is a main opponent and then there are lesser evils. The birds are actually harmless, despite their… teeth.
When a fox abducts the sleeping Muriel for stew Courage wants to get her back.
The fox. The fox has an evil plan of his own, which is to make himself a delicious Cajun stew. Although he has sourced all kinds of hard-to-get items he is in the middle of cooking it before realising with horror that it tastes disgusting and needs a granny as a major ingredient. We see right away that this fox, unlike other craftier foxes, doesn’t plan ahead. (This will be his downfall.)
In this episode we see the opponent first. But we are introduced to him gradually, bit by bit. First we see the outside of his lair.
Then we see him cooking a Macbeth type concoction. But we only see his skinny arms. His body is revealed slowly, and we wonder who is talking in this deep, smooth voice a la Isaac Hayes (the chef off South Park).
Much of the comedy of this character is that he is serenading the granny as if she is a love interest rather than a cut of meat.
Courage and this fox are evenly matched. Both have obstacles thrown into their paths. For example, the fox tries to get away with granny in a taxi but then gets a flat tyre.
Although the fox is making cajun stew, he himself is not Cajun: he is try-hard Cajun. We see this when he slaps a pair of cool sunglasses on before leaving his lair. Later we also hear him say ‘vinegar’ with a slight French drawl. The Cajun from Louisiana as a baddie is a common trope in fiction, so the audience knows immediately that this fox is a badass.
Cajun people are originally from Canada.
Cajuns are originally from Canada. They trekked down to Louisiana by several routes after the French and Indian War resulted in the transfer of Canada to British rule. As a result, the Cajuns have a Southern U.S. culture with French-Canadian roots, and are an ethnic group mainly living in southwestern Louisiana
— TV Tropes
The cuisine is noteworthy and since many Cajuns were farmers and not especially wealthy, they were known for not wasting any part of a butchered animal. It makes sense that these animal parts were made into stew. Likewise, the fox in this story does not waste a single part of his meat, including her overcoat, gumboots and spectacles.
Original Cajun stew uses sausage, which explains why Courage tries to swap Muriel for one of those.
Courage is forced to change his plan when each one is foiled. Because Courage is a sympathetic character he first tries to do the right one. He steals a salami from the butcher and offers the salami to fox in exchange for the granny back.
When this doesn’t work he slaps the fox over the head with it.
He persuades the Fox to have a game of pokies. When he wins with three (ironic) hearts the fox gets punched in the face.
When the fox loses Muriel altogether he floats with a single helium balloon over the landscape and uses a pair of binoculars to scout her out.
And so on.
This is a Road Runner type battle involving roadblocks, cliffs, drops into rivers, smashing against cliffs and cartoon bombs.
Although this is a country area, props appear out of nowhere — e.g. the pokie machine which punches the fox in the face, the telephone booth to call the police.
A lot of this episode takes place high in the air, which feels as if the stakes are raised even though cartoon characters can fall to the ground at any time and get right back up again.
When Muriel puts her own life in danger Courage and the fox unite to save her from plummeting to her death. As they stand together counterbalancing the plane we see for ourselves just how similarly matched these foes are.
Muriel wakes in midair but assumes she’s just having “one of those floating dreams.”
As in every episode of this series, someone comes very close to death.
Here Muriel is ready to be eaten, but after seasoning her the fox decides to roll her in flour.
This ghostly colour makes her look even closer to death.
There is no self-revelation. Courage falls into the fox’s lair by pure accident, through a chimney hole in the roof.
Like the ending of (non-sanitised) Three Little Pigs and similar classic tales, the evil canid ends up in the stew himself. Granny wakes up and smells ‘fox stew’. (We don’t see the fox go into the pot.) From inside the pot the fox says, “Cajun stew is not for you!”
Muriel suggests they eat and Courages says, “No thanks, I’ve had enough Cajun for one day!”
Doctor De Soto is an example of a picturebook that owes a lot to Aesop, with the characterisation of the mice and the fox already firmly in place. Mice don’t play as prominent part in the fables as you might think, but foxes are one of the main five, along with countrymen, dogs, donkeys and lions.
There’s a good reason why Dr De Soto is a mouse and not a rat:
Mice are widely represented in folktales, both as protagonists and as helpers. Apparently, there is a subconscious identification on the part of children’s writers of a small and helpless child with one of the smallest animals, also know–maybe without reason–for its lack of courage. While rats are in many children’s stories presented as ruthless enemies, mice–in reality similarly harmful–are portrayed as harmless and sympathetic. The emblematic meaning of animals in art and literature deserves special attention there is an enormous diversity between cultures. However, in most ancient mythologies, mice are chthonic animals, worshipped as powerful and benevolent towards humans.
– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature
But the influences on Doctor De Soto go back even further than that.
The main value in making a character small is that he immediately becomes more heroic. Jack climbs a bean stalk to battle a giant, and he must use his brain, not his brawn, to win this fight. So too must Odysseus, who defeats the Cyclops by clinging to the underbelly of a sheep and telling the Cyclops that the one who blinded him is named Norman.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
There are also shades of fairytales in here, such as The Gingerbread Man. Readers will already know that tale, and therefore know how very perilous it is to approach a fox’s mouth end. Dr De Soto is obliged to jump right in.
THE NAME DE SOTO
I wondered if ‘De Soto’ had any significance.
There is a famous Hernando De Soto in American history — a Spanish explorer born at the end of the 1400s. I can’t say for sure if Stieg intended readers to make any connection to this historical figure, but I do note that Hernando de Soto’s North American expedition ranged throughout the southeastern United States searching for gold. Enter, the possibly symbolic gold tooth? Like Hernando, the mouse dentist is undertaking a perilous task.
But the similarities end there, really. Unlike the mouse, the historical figure was not someone known to bring peoples together.
De Soto was instrumental in contributing to the development of a hostile relationship between many Native American tribes and Europeans. When his expedition encountered hostile natives in the new lands, more often than not it was his men who instigated the clashes.
I don’t know about you, but 1982 doesn’t feel that long ago to me. That is, until I pick up a children’s book published in 1982 and realise that in 2016 good publishers are no longer putting out stories about professional men and their assistant wives. We might even say that picturebooks are even ahead of the culture in this regard; in our village the pharmacist indeed has an assistant who happens to be his wife, but it’s great that we’re moving at least smashing the glass ceiling in picturebooks, mostly.
As is usual in stories, it is the female character’s compassion which puts the goodies in a dangerous situation in the first place.
“Please!” the fox wailed. “Have mercy, I’m suffering!” And he wept so bitterly it was painful to see.
“Just a moment,” said Doctor De Soto. “That poor fox,” he whispered to his wife. “What shall we do?”
“Let’s risk it,” said Mrs De Soto. She pressed the buzzer and let the fox in.
— Doctor De Soto, William Steig
That’s not to say we aren’t clinging on to traditional gender roles by rehashing without much in the way of re-visioning the same old fairytales with their conservative gender roles.
This is a tale of minatures, in which tiny animals have rigged workarounds to exist in a world much too big for their bodies.
Like all mice in children’s books, the De Sotos’ main weakness is their small size. They need to use their wits in order to survive against predators.
The De Sotos want to help others by mending teeth and keeping pain at bay. They are an altruistic pair.
The fox, whose natural inclination is to eat mice.
Part of the humour of this story comes from the (adult) reader’s real-life experience of a dentist. Dentists are known to regularly request a wider mouth. Dr De Soto does the same, but here it’s because the fox really wants to eat the dentist, not because his mouth is simply getting a bit tired!
We see the power of this mighty opponent foreshadowed in the details of the illustration, for example the fanged dentures sitting on the bench in the dental surgery.
We’re also got humour in the Freudian idea that when a patient is under the gas and muttering nonsense, that this nonsense dream is somehow an insight into their true thoughts. So when the fox mutters “Mmm, yummy,” the mice are clued into his intentions.
We don’t see what the De Sotos’ plan is — instead we see them lying awake in bed worrying about it.
Since the reader isn’t in on the plan, the fox’s return for his gold tooth is fraught with tension. Stieg amps up the tension by having the fox comically chomp down ‘as a joke’.
As it turns out, the De Sotos glue the fox’s teeth shut and this will last a good few days.
The reader realises that even if you are powerless you can run on wits.
Doctor De Soto and his assistant had out-foxed the fox. They kissed each other and took the rest of the day off.
Implied after the story ends: The fox is able to open his jaw in a few days’ time, but by this time he is well enough away from the mouse dentists that his natural instincts allow him to leave them alone to continue their good work.
Note that altitude is symbolic in this final image — the fox is on his way down (in power) while the small mice stand at the top, as if on a victory podium.