Jeanne Birdsall's 'Penderwicks' Grow Up And Say Goodbye In Final Book

Aug 9, 2018

Our back-to-school book series for younger readers begins with Northampton, Massachusetts, writer Jeanne Birdsall and her book, "The Penderwicks At Last."

It's Birdsall's fifth and final book in "The Penderwicks" series, which for more than 15 years has been telling the tales of a growing family who live in the fictional town of Cameron, Massachusetts.

Birdsall said the town is based on a mix of Amherst, Northampton, and the Pennsylvania town she grew up in. She says the Penderwicks start out in the first book with "a father, four sisters and a very loyal dog."

In "The Penderwicks At Last," the story takes place in the Berkshires at a big old house called Arundel. The four older sisters are in their late teens and early 20s. Step-brother Ben is 16. Lydia, who was a baby in the last book, is now 11 years old. And they've reconnected with lifelong friend Jeffrey.

Jeanne Birdsall: This is going to be [Lydia’s] first time at Arundel, and Ben's too, and all they know about this place is what their older sisters have told them from their visit, which had been 15 years earlier.

And they've told Lydia, and she's heard all these stories. Then she goes, and she has to start getting her sisters' memories to work with her own reality. That becomes a humorous journey, especially when it comes to the one character, who has come back from the first book, that they never, ever thought they would see again.

Jill Kaufman, NEPR: Is this Jeffrey, or Jeffrey's mother?

This is Jeffrey's mother. 

Jeffrey's mother is Mrs. Tifton. And she does not like the Penderwicks! What is going on here? Remind us why she's there.

Oh, I can't tell you why she's there! But the reason she hates them so much is all what happened in the first book, the first time the original family was at Arundel, and they pretty much stole Jeffrey away from her. Because he was very lonely, and she had a very specific future set out for him, and here come these four girls who just sweep him into their family. Mrs. Tifton thought that they were after his money, even when they were 11.

There's very few parents actually around. I mean, they're referred to, they pop in and out, but really the action seems to be these older siblings and Lydia, and Alice -- her new friend who lives in this place in the Berkshires. I find that really interesting, especially for a young reader. How amazing that the parents are not the ones who are calling the shots. Can you say a little bit about that?

Well, that made complete sense to me. That's what happens in families, especially when there's such a big [age] gap. But the other thing is that there were no parents in any of my strongest memories, and I know that parents were around.

So I think that the way a child tells the story of their childhood is those interstices between parental or adult control.

Three years ago, when I first interviewed you about another Penderwicks book, you said the whole series of five books tells one particular story, and it's not going to become clear until the last book. Is it really the last book?

Yes.

How do you know?

It's pure logistics. I'm 67 years old. It took me 15 to 20 years to write the whole series.

I'm now working on a book that's just one book, no series. I have three more lined up in my head after that.

It takes about three years to write a book. I'll be writing the things I write now until 77, and I'm sure that in 10 years, or whatever it is, I will get some more ideas. So this all is a race against time for me.

Will you miss "The Penderwicks"? 

No! They're still in my head! You guys only get what I write down. They're in there. The books are just what I tell you about them.

Catch up with the back-to-school book series on NEPR.