July 05, 2007


The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy. By Jeanne Birdsall. Yearling. $6.50.

Your Own Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath. By Stephanie Hemphill. Knopf. $15.99.

      If you want something light, nostalgic and nonthreatening to read this summer, for yourself, to your children or with your children, the new paperback edition of The Penderwicks is a good choice. Jeanne Birdsall’s first book is a charmer on many levels – it’s easy to ignore the fact that parts of it are pure cliché, while the characters are defined more by their descriptions than by any substantive personality traits or development. Reminiscent of some of the books by Eleanor Estes, The Penderwicks features a widowed father and his four daughters going for a summer vacation to a rented cottage on an estate called Arundel. They might as well be traveling in a time warp back to the 1950s (computers are mentioned, but they play no part in the story, and there are no videogames or other newfangled forms of entertainment). The four girls are responsible Rosalind, moody Skye, would-be writer Jane, and little Batty (who has the most personality). They encounter all sorts of delights at Arundel: tame rabbits, formal gardens (which they mess up in an endearingly mischievous way), and boys named Jeffrey (11-year-old son of the estate’s owner) and Cagney (a teenage groundskeeper). Jeffrey, artistic and musically talented, is a wonderful – and entirely innocent – playmate for the girls. But there is trouble in the form of Jeffrey’s mother, a snob who dislikes the Penderwick family, and her boyfriend (one should almost say “her intended,” so old-fashioned does the book seem), Dexter Dupree (and how old-fashioned is that name?). These adults’ conflicts with the Penderwick girls, and their decision to marry and send Jeffrey away to military school, provide what drama there is in an essentially good-hearted tale. There’s nothing really upsetting in the book: the worst things the girls do are lose their tempers and occasionally be less than truthful; even Jeffrey’s troubling situation is satisfactorily resolved at last. The Penderwicks does only that which is expected – or would have been expected 50 or so years ago – in a book that is mostly for and about preteens. Parents of a certain age will surely relish its air of innocence; children of today may find it a refreshing change of pace from other books aimed at them. And for those who love the book, there is a sequel due out next year.

      There have been no sequels from poet Sylvia Plath since 1963, when she committed suicide. Your Own Sylvia is about as strong a contrast to The Penderwicks for summer reading (or reading anytime) as can be. It is a far more serious, dour and distressing book, although it is both well and cleverly written. This is a book that engages the mind as well as the emotions. What Stephanie Hemphill has done is to tell the story of Plath’s short life (31 years) through poems that Hemphill has written herself and attributed to people in Plath’s world – as if Plath’s poetic sensibility imbued all those around her with her own muse. At the bottoms of pages, Hemphill provides biographical information about Plath in small type. Hemphill occasionally quotes brief excerpts of Plath’s poems, or discusses them – so readers can find them on their own. But the bulk of Your Own Sylvia is the poetry that Hemphill herself has created. She imagines Olive Higgins Prouty, the benefactor who made it possible for Plath to attend Smith College, musing, “What pleasure to know/ that my scholarship goes/ to such a talented delight.” There is this, attributed to Plath’s on-and-off college boyfriend, Dick Norton: “Stymied like a fly/ stuck in amber, she writes/ that she cannot write,/ confides in her mother/ that her muse has retired,/ abandoned her, left her/ with no imagination, just/ nerve ends of worry.” Plath’s friend and Smith roommate, Nancy Hunter, is given these lines: “I protect my Sylvia and she watches/ after me. I will stop her from jumping/ in front of trains, even if I have to bind/ my own hands and feet to the rail.” The poetic approach does wear a bit thin after a while – it is a tour de force, but a gimmick as well – and yet it successfully humanizes Plath in a way that more straightforward narratives of her life may not. Readers willing to challenge themselves to enter Plath’s world, as Hemphill herself has made a brave attempt to do, will find this a fascinating reading experience, if a dark and disturbing one.

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