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Summerland

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(I could’ve sworn I psoted this a good while back, but I don’t see it on the site. Apologies if it’s a re-post…)

It probably says something about Michael Chabon that he chose to follow Wonder Boys, a sprawling novel about a middle-aged college professor with writer’s block with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a sprawling novel about the epic adventures of comic book writers. What it says, I’m not sure. Nor do I have a clue what it says about Chabon that he followed Kavalier and Clay with a 500-page kids’ book about Norse mythology, the end of the world, and the mythic significance of baseball.

Summerland is the story of Ethan Feld, an eleven-year-old resident of Clam Island, WA (nowhere near Athos), and possibly the worst baseball player ever in the history of the island. Which makes it especially mysterious that a tribe of ferishers (don’t call them “fairies”) comes looking for Ethan when they need a champion baseball player to help thwart an attempt by the evil (or at least maliciously mischievous) demigod Coyote to destroy the entire Universe (an event termed “Ragged Rock” in the fractured mythological terminology of the Summerlands). Along the way, he encounters, defeats, or is aided by a bizarre assortment of characters: two giants, one gigantic, the other miniature; the Home Run King of three worlds; an aging Negro League pitcher and hero scout; a baseball-playing Sasquatch; various figures out of American folk tales; and an oracular clam.

This sort of funhouse-mirror mythology is strongly reminiscent of Neil Gaiman, down to this passage which closely echoes the bit I quoted when I booklogged Coraline:


“Excuse me, sir?” Ethan said to the old man with the ponytail. “What did you just say?”

“I was merely observatin’, young man, that sooner than you think you goin’ to find yourself in the game.”

Ethan decided that the old guy was joking, or thought that he was. An informal survey that Ethan has once conducted seemed to indicate that fully seventy-three percent of the things that adults said to him in the course of a day were intended to be jokes. But there was something in the man’s tone that worried him. So he adopted his usual strategy with adult humor, and pretended that he hadn’t heard.

It’s not entirely clear to me who the audience for this book is supposed to be. The tone is that of a YA book throughout, as is most of the writing, but the obsession with baseball, and the numerous in-jokes about the game will probably fly over most children’s heads (as a casual fan at best, I’m sure I missed quite a few). Plus, it’s five hundred pages long, and the plot is incredibly tangled and myhtology-laden (though looking at the last Harry Potter book, length is no real obstacle…). On the other hand, it’s exactly the sort of odd, quirky fantasy novel I like (it reminds me a bit of Will Shetterly’s Dogland, which I really must re-read one of these days), so I should probably leave the marketing worries for the folks at Miramax Books, and just enjoy the story.

There are some weird bits here that don’t really go anywhere, and a few plot threads get dropped without much explanation, but all in all, this is a fun little book. I generally don’t care much for baseball– I’m terrible at any game requiring me to hit a ball with a stick, and don’t go in for the level of stat-wanking that goes on in baseball (“He’s got an 0.036 ERA against right-handed batters with blonde hair and mustaches, but a 3.57 ERA against bearded brunettes…”)– but reading this book got me to tune in for a few innings of a World Series not involving the Yankees. That counts as high praise indeed.

(Originally posted on The Library of Babel.)

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About Chad Orzel