Book Review: “Summerland” by Michael Chabon

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by Michael Chabon

Ethan Feld is the worst baseball player in the history of Clam Island, Washington. His presence in right field, for one inning, can cost his little-league team a four-run lead. His batting is so bad, it’s nonexistent; kids call him Dog because he just stands there, waiting for a walk. Everyone on the team hopes he won’t show up for games. No such luck. Because Ethan’s father, a widowed designer of personal and family dirigibles, is a team jersey-wearing, fanatical baseball lover.

Nevertheless, when a very peculiar talent scout spots Ethan, he recruits him to be a hero. A baseball hero. The hero who will save the world, if it can be saved.

You have to understand, first of all, that our world is only one of four main limbs growing out of the trunk of a tree. Known as the Middling to folks from outside, it lies between the Summerlands and the Winterlands – worlds populated by magical creatures such as werebeasts, sasquatches, and ferishers (don’t call them fairies), giants, shaggurts, and Big Liars (basically, tall tales come to life). Certain people, called shadowtails, can travel from world to another, like squirrels hopping from branch to branch.

One thing all these worlds have in common is baseball. Its rules have magical, binding power in the Summerlands, as Ethan and his friends find during their quest. Pitchers can’t shake off their catchers’ signs. Magical “grammers” ensure a level playing field for all players, regardless of size. Heresies, such as the Designated Hitter rule, can break magical protections and doom entire communities.

Playing his way across the Summerlands, Ethan gathers a motley team of players to his quest to save his father, and to stop Coyote – also known as the Changer, a type of devil – from carrying out his plan to end all existence as we know it. As he studies the art of being a catcher, Ethan takes tips and help from a tomboy, an android, a very small giant, a wererat and a werefox, a couple of ferishers, a washed-up professional player, and a female sasquatch named Taffy. He faces teams of giants, fairies, the “bowling men” who make thunder in the mountains, and some of the toughest ruffians ever to spit tobacco juice in the dugout. He also faces his own weakness and inadequacy, his deepest fears and desires, and the power in his pain.

This book is a big, beautiful gift to kids, especially kids who like baseball and/or stories of wonder and magic. It blends the two as few books do: The Boy Who Saved Baseball and Two Hot Dogs with Everything come to mind, but they aren’t in this book’s league.

It’s so filled with ideas that it will make your gray cells dance. It has a huge sense of humor, including some of the best laughs I have had in a long time. It has a little bit of Native American spirituality (occult-sensitive readers beware), a twist of Nordic mythology, a strong vein of American folklore, and a faint but charming Yiddish lilt. It is packed with characters you will cheer for, scenic descriptions of breathtaking beauty, psges of terrific dialogue, delicious new words such as “squatchlings,” and baseball games that could well make a believer of the meanest skeptic. It’s a healing book, a challenging book, a book jocks and dweebs can share, a book parents can share with their kids. It might be (oooh, here it comes) the Best Book I’ve Read This Year.

Michael Chabon is the owner of a Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and a Nebula award for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, a sci-fi novel set in an alternate timeline. His book Wonder Boys was adapted for the screen by Harry Potter scribe Steve Kloves. His other titles include Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a mystery called The Final Solution, and a short-story collection titled Werewolves in Their Youth. If the joyful, generous, overflowing-with-wit writing style of Summerland is typical of his books, I expect to enjoy all of them in time.