Twelve-year-old Peter is forced by his dad to abandon his pet fox when his dad enlists in the war. The two are on their way to grandpa's house who is going to care for Peter while his dad is gone. Once Peter arrives, he runs away determined to retrieve his fox whom he has had for five years just after his mother died. The three-hundred mile journey to retrieve the fox is full of obstacles. Peter gets help from a woman, Vola, who has abandoned the world after serving in a war twenty years earlier that left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. The voices alternate between Peter and Pax, his fox.
The lack of setting and slow character build-up made me slog through the beginning. I didn't really figure out that I should be reading it as a fable until page 66 when the gray fox makes comments about humans being careless in war and destroying animals in the process. It is also a coming-of-age book as Peter loses his childhood innocence making decisions on his own and contemplating the effects of deceit internally and with Vola. They discover the difficulty of facing the truth about themselves. The author shows the adults as being "war-sick" and destructive toward animals and humans. Peter's dad abandons him just like Peter abandoned his fox.
Peter's loss of innocence is shown from the fox's point of view. He tells the female fox, Bristle, about how Peter has become false-acting. He tossed a toy deceptively getting Pax to think they were playing a game but then drove off in the car. However, Pax makes a point to tell Bristle that Peter is not war-sick like the adults. He is not full of hate or anger and wants to destroy, but can show love. Peter knows it was wrong to let Pax go like that and while he recognizes that his dad didn't give him a choice he feels guilty for not standing up to him and insisting Pax stay. He is trying to make it right.
Peter's point of view shows him learning to live without the fox and face his grief and guilt over losing his mother. Peter blames himself for an accident he had with his baseball bat the last time he saw his mom. This parallels Vola's story of grief and loss as well. "He was becoming foxless, something he'd hadn't been since he was seven years old." Losing Pax was like losing his mother all over again. He and Vola both help each other deal with their losses.
There are many symbols in the book from the Phoenix to the marionettes to the names given the characters or words spoken. The wooden bat was the most powerful one for me with its imagery of hitting, acting as a crutch, bringing him joy in a sport, and made of wood like the marionettes. He and Vola are like Geppetto and Pinnochio in their carving shop. Much of the storyline follows the destructive path of anger and how it can be productive if directed in a proper way. Vola tries to help Peter understand the difference as he feels that all anger is destructive and tries to hide from his own true feelings rather than face it. The story has great character development along with symbolism even if the setting confused me.
Fables convey an idea indirectly rather than specifically and this is evident in the moral that is stated at the beginning, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," and the end, "Sometimes the apple rolls very far from the tree." The idiom means that children are like their parents. The moral is children do not have to be like their parents, as well as, shows that all humans can make a choice in their attitude. The men in Peter's life choose to be angry and undemonstrative. They choose to hit rather than hug. Peter consciously chooses to love and knows what it means at the end when he gives his pet freedom. The desire for freedom is universal and has fueled many wars. While I struggled a bit getting through this, it was worth it in the end.