Monday, October 14, 2013

Two YA Baseball Novels

Choosing Up Sides
by John H. Ritter
Recommended Ages: 12+

More than five years ago, I reviewed The Boy Who Saved Baseball by this author, who is totally not the actor from Three's Company. In that review, I said that I planned to read more of his books in the near future. I was true to my word, but only to the extent that I have had this book and another by the same author on my shelf all these years. It's no reflection on my feelings for baseball fiction (which are generally warm) or for this author (intrigued, respectful). It's just an occupational hazard of being a book junkie whose shelves are jammed two books deep with titles I've been planning to read for ages. So many books, so little time!

One of these days, I'm going to reshelve my Book Trolley reviews by the Hogwarts subject each book pertains to. When I do, it may be easier to understand my reason for including sport-related fiction in the category of things that "if you like J. K. Rowling, you may also like." After all, Quidditch was a subject taught at Hogwarts. And such is the magic of sports that a story about, say, little-league baseball can also be about something much bigger and more powerful. Take this book, for example. It's not really primarily about baseball. It's about prejudice, and the ignorant place it comes from, and the harm it can lead to, and the radical change that must happen to break free of it. The game of baseball is a character in the story that illustrates the author's message about prejudice.

Luke Bledsoe wants to play baseball. He shows early signs of being good at it, good enough to help feed his poor family and to bring happiness to many others. But there seem to be many barriers between Luke and his dream. Really there is only one barrier: his father. A preacher in a very strict sect of Baptists, Luke's dad believes that sports like baseball are a sinful waste of time. And perhaps more importantly, he believes that Luke's left-handedness—including his phenomenal pitching arm—is a mark of evil.

Based on a literal interpretation of a few cherry-picked Bible verses, this belief—which would be described in theological circles as "legalistic"—threatens to smother the joy out of Luke's young life, to prevent him from rising to the strengths he has been blessed with. It's a tragedy that could affect not only Luke himself, but the friends who count on him, the girl who likes him, the family that loves him, maybe even his whole community in Prohibition-era, southern Ohio, where life is hard and enjoyment is precious.

Luke suffers a crisis of conscience. He is torn between the beliefs in which he was brought up and a misgiving that he hasn't been taught the whole truth. He fears his father for his brutal temper (and rightly so), but also admires and finally pities him. He yearns for acceptance. But above all, he struggles to fit the old man's arbitrary prejudice against left-handedness into a worldview increasingly shaped by baseball. What will Luke decide to do? How far will his father go to keep him in line? And what must happen before Luke goes free?

The author's note at the end of this book suggests that the comparison he had in mind was toward the civil rights struggle of the mid-20th century, the struggle against discrimination based on the color of people's skin. Today, the story's theme of prejudice against something one was born with (left-handedness) might be read in light of another issue. The extreme harshness of the Bledsoes' sectarian beliefs could also be taken as an unnecessarily harsh caricature of Christian belief, and a one-sided one at that, since the book depicts no alternative position within Christianity; and the climactic twist of the story, which seems to be the only way out for Luke, seems likewise harsh and terribly convenient.

But I guess it would be too easy for Luke to tell his father what he wanted to do, and see the old man unbend for him; and it wouldn't be making the point the book needs to make, if he simply ran away to live with his sports-writer uncle and lived life his way without caring how his folks felt about it. The agony of Luke's situation, and of people throughout history who have suffered because of irrational prejudice, is that "a way out" isn't enough. A way forward, with courage—versus the cowardice of running away—and with honesty and dignity, is much harder to find. And maybe there is no way to get there by gentle persuasion. But to stand up for yourself, even against a brutal father, and yet still to be a dutiful, brave, and honest son... the dilemma could not be less painful than what Luke experiences.

One thing you'll wish this book had more of, is baseball. In spite of its title, there is only one brief scene in which boys in a baseball scrimmage choose up sides. But then, it's a title with at least a double meaning: the best kind. Luke stumbles on the knowledge of his pitching ability by accident, and only gets a few brief opportunities to enjoy it, before events in the story put his baseball career on hold—temporarily. He gets to see Babe Ruth play in a benefit game. He gets his name in the newspaper. Other than that, Luke's baseball greatness is all in the future for him. Readers will wish him well. But while this is a promising first novel by this author of baseball-themed, teen fiction, you'll have to look up some of his later titles for more of a baseball fix. Some of them include Fenway Fever and Under the Baseball Moon.

Over the Wall
by John H. Ritter
Recommended Ages: 12+

In his baseball-themed novels for young adults, author John H. Ritter frequently combines ball-field action with a kid's personal struggle with an issue that impacts his ability to play the game. In The Boy Who Saved baseball, the theme was "baseball and the choice between progress and tradition, or between business and the environment." In Choosing Up Sides, it was "baseball and the injustice of bigotry." And now, in a story about a thirteen-year-old shortstop with anger-management problems, the theme is "baseball and the problem of conflict and violence."

Tyler is a San Diego kid spending the summer with his New York City cousins. His cousin Louie is especially excited to play summer-league baseball with him, because Tyler is a terrific athlete, in spite of his short build. Unfortunately, Tyler has an even shorter temper, and when he lets it get out of control, he almost gets kicked off the team in the first week. In order to have a shot at making the All Stars team, Tyler must rein in his angry impulses and show signs of sincere good-sportsmanship. It's a tall order for a kid with a short fuse.

Just making the painful apology and begging for a second chance is harder than anything he has done before. Before he has a chance of winning the battle against the berserker within, Tyler will need to dig down to the roots of his anger problem—and the causes of conflict in general. This connects naturally with his family history, including a war-hero grandfather who died in Vietnam, and an anti-war father who died inside the day he (accidentally) took a human life. As Tyler visits the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in New York, and other monuments in both cities, he learns to look at battlegrounds—including the athletic kind—in a different way. And when he has an idea on how to honor the victims of war with fairness and justice, it brings out a different kind of warrior in him.

All this, of course, is never far from the context of a youth baseball game, with the rivalries and razzing between kids who may be opponents one week and teammates the next. Tyler makes some dumb mistakes: some will make you laugh, while others will lead you to share his grief and shame. You might not agree with where his brainstorming leads him, but you will enjoy the adventures of this passionate, impulsive, thoughtful, good-hearted kid. And as he thinks and learns about war and courage and self-control, you may be challenged to do some thinking and learning too.

Author Ritter's other titles include a prequel to The Boy Who Saved Baseball titled The Desperado Who Stole Baseball; a book about baseball and luck titled Fenway Fever; and a book about music and baseball called Under the Baseball Moon.

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