This could have been a news report – “Man reads Steven King Novel and Survives.” I did both just recently. Stephen King, the maker of malevolent cars and wicked school girls with powers, vehicles attacking man and iconographic symbolism may not be great literature but he succeeds in doing what he sets out to do most of the time – he entertains.
I have read King and other pop writers right there in River City on the Hudson and now south of the border. I not only read them but sometimes I liked them. I have even read Koontz and Clancy, mysteries and science-fiction galore. There is a place and time or is it a place in time when they are the choice to make, comfort food for the eyes, the mind can wait for Dostoevsky.
This particular 1999 King, a slim volume, appeared at a wonderful community book sale at the shopping center next door to my motel one morning in Miami. It was a dreary motel and rainy Sunday before boarding my ship on Monday. Then people exited a van with boxes of books to sell me after all those hours in fine bookstores weighted down by the mass of high prices.
The Stephen King I curled up on my couch with was The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. The story of a charming girl with a fistful of common sense as we find out. Her resourcefulness is perceived only after she has wandered from the path of the Appalachian Trail to find herself a little lost girl in the woods. There is a wolf, of sorts, a malevolent force that trails her and scents the innocence of small girls and is part of the dark forces of nature.
I am a firm believer in the study of first sentences of novels. They are, explained the writer, Robert Coover in a class back in college, the harbinger of the quality and direction of the work. “Call me Ismael,” wrote Melville, and swam into the collective mythology of fiction. Stephen King, for all my teasing, may create books by formula to please a mass audience but he does it with genius.
“The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted.”
This is the first line Trisha speaks as narrator and character, little girl and protagonist, the little victim of neglect and American marital woes. Trisha is young and wastes no time finding her problem and sets the path of the book through the woods of words and the forests of The Appalachians. “All because I needed to pee…”
She was distracted and took her bearings wrong. She looks for landmarks and tries to follow them back to the Trail but those landmark trees and rocks begin to look a lot alike, the path taken begins to fade as you take each step beyond. She begins a trek that will take her far from the path she left and, perhaps, far from the protected life of modern, American children.
“…Her voice trembled, became first the quavery voice of a little kid and then almost the shriek of a baby who lies forgotten in her pram, and that sound frightened her more than anything else so far on this awful morning, the only human sound in the woods her weepy, shrieking voice calling for help, calling for help because she was lost.”
There are reasons that European writers wrote of enchanted woods, of wolves chasing sleighs in the Russian winter, of old women making baked torts of children. The reason could be that woods are enchanted – some sweetly and some with the face of evil sewn in the inter-laced roots of trees and vines.
Is this a book for children, you wonder? I wondered, too, but kept reading because I had to know what happens to our little victim or heroine, this child of nine — not that nine means so much. She is a child, and the child is lost in the Appalachians on the Maine-New Hampshire line. At nine, you can make the first mistake that leads to the second and ends in tragic misery. At any age the great tragedies of life and of those massive messages of “human error” that bring down planes and ferries and put aging super-tankers on rocks were made of the sequence of errors and coincidences that add up to catastrophe.
She leaves the trail, the marked way in what once was daunting for Daniel Boone himself. She doesn’t say anything to mother and brother who are mother-son fighting. She decides to save some time; that other trail being just over there and, then, lost, the disorientation gets worse, and those other two who will blame themselves continue along in teen-aged rebelliousness and motherly lecturing little noticing the lack of a little girl following along.
Trisha is entering a totally different world than the 6 mile, moderately difficult hike her mother planned for “quality time” together now that the father of the piece has made an exit and left confused children behind.
It is not quite a book for children, but children would like this story of adventure with a child-protagonist. Especially little girls who need a model of wilderness resourcefulness in a world of cell phone pizza delivery and affluent allowances for clothes and toys. I liked it partly because strength is not governed by age nor limited by it. Read it or read it to a kid or with a kid. Make your girl-child think herself capable of survival in a harsh world. Little girls still get doses of sweet-little-girl and submission vibes from the powers that be.
I must not mislead. This is Stephen King, and there is a monster of the piece, a presence that reeks of evil and sniffs the air to find and toy with the little girl. She labels the dangerous pursuer, The God of the Lost. And she is lost and small. Innocent and young. Smart and resilient. Intuitive and imaginative. Will brutish strength and the force of evil win or does the world allow for the winning team to still be the good guys?
Can a little wisp of a kid find her way out of the trap she walked into? Will the malevolent beast that tracks her with the dark eyes of the predator make her its toy until she is ready to eat? How much of the malevolence is the residue of the problems of that other world she left behind – divorce and parent problems, new school, and older brother? How much is the world of real dangers that lies just beyond the man-made paths set out for us?
Trisha has only her Walkman and an undying admiration for a baseball player, this Tom Gordon, a player for the Philadelphia Phillies. I am not a baseball fan so the fictional references left me slightly out of the loop but the basic idea that he was a shared enjoyment of Trisha and the now-absent father and a symbol of determination was enough. Later I googled him to find he is real and not a plot invention. We need our heroes and those we look to for the model of how to act in situations that push us to our limits and beyond.
Lost in the woods Trisha removes her Red Sox cap and enjoys the Tom Gordon signature across the brim. “…Tom Gordon was Trisha’s and her Dad’s favorite Red Sox player. (He) was the Red Sox closer; he came on in the eighth or ninth inning when the game was close but the Sox were still on top.” Trisha’s father admired his playing “…because he never seemed to lose his nerve – ‘Flash has got ice water in his veins,’ Larry McFarland liked to say.” Trisha said the same thing. Tom Gordon is her connection to home and life and she puts some ice water in her own veins.
Of course this is a little girl who could become an independent woman if she survives. We don’t want to imply there is nothing else in her head but heroism. To her closest girl friend she “…threw caution entirely to the winds, saying that Number 36 was the handsomest man alive, and if he ever touched her hand she’d faint.”
A girl, an evil spirit in a predatory creature, insects and swamps, hunger and solitude. Still she is entranced with the beauties of nature and the dark ceiling of space with a meteor shower to entertain her in the un-citified darkness. She feeds herself with the vegetarian delights of Stalking The Wild Asparagus and fishes with her hands until… That is the story, and the end comes at the end and is for the reader to digest –or is it the predatory tracker of tasty little girls who will do the digesting?
As the world enters a wilderness, maybe we will forge ahead like Trisha and face the evil forces that sniff our trails and play with our heads. Whatever comes I hope many will stand with their heads up to face down the forces of evil.