- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2002

J.K. Rowling has written four encyclopedia-length Harry Potter books and sold thousands of copies to young readers, and perhaps Michael Chabon thought he could follow suit.
Mr. Chabon's "Summerland," a mythology of baseball and a tale of how the game saves the world, is 500 pages long. Granted, that is child's play when it comes to the new era of epic children sagas. Each Harry Potter yarn is over 500 pages. But do kids really want to read Tom Clancy primers?
In the case of Harry Potter, the answer has been a very clear yes. J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" is another volume of otherworldly length that young readers have devoured. The problem is, Mr. Chabon is not J.K. Rowling, and it goes without saying that no one is J.R.R. Tolkien.
It's a good bet that not many children will want to stay with Mr. Chabon's often laborious, sometimes brilliant tale of how the worst baseball player ever saved the world with a home run. The premise sounds promising, that's true. The story itself is wild, fantastic, and often funny. Mr. Chabon himself told USA Today that Summerland is "exactly what I would have loved to have read at age 11."
Certainly, for seasoned baseball fans the book will prove endearing for its insider's grasp of baseball and for its purist's love of the game. But Mr. Chabon may have gotten a little carried away trying to cater to his 11-year-old self. The goblin-filled, magic driven plot is so outlandish and so completely farfetched that the narrative spins out of control at points, leaving the reader grasping for a frame of reference, a dose of reality, and a sense of one's whereabouts.
Ethan Feld is an 11-year old Fred Savage, straight out of "The Wonder Years." He is subdued, with a smart wit, and has not a lick of athletic ability. His mother has recently died, and he is being raised by his quirky, absent-minded professor of a father, who is actually a very nice and sympathetic figure.
The Felds live on Clam Island, a spot just off the coast of Washington State, where it never rains. This is the first of many details that immediately blur the lines between reality and the land of the supernatural or mythological, and not in a helpful way. The lack of rain has something to do with a group of small little creatures called ferishers. It turns out these creatures do not actually live in this world. No, in what is the first major discombobulating twist, they live in a parallel world, which is connected by something called the Lodgepole, the tree of the worlds.
There are not just two worlds, but four, at this reviewer's last count. And these ferishers, also known as shadowtails, can move from world to world by "scampering" from branches in one world to branches in the next. How exactly does this work? Mr. Chabon might have thought this won't matter to young readers who will only notice that jumping from world to world is "way cool."
Mr. Chabon borrows the American Indian mythological figure Coyote the trickster or changer as his villain. Coyote is not your regular comic book villain, though, which may confuse some children. He is actually portrayed as likable, and not all that bad.
It is one of many ambiguities and rather unjuvenile themes in the book, among which are child abuse, drunkenness and alcoholism, mild violence, and several uses of adult language.
Coyote plays the biblical role of Lucifer, the fallen angel, who found fault with the Creator's work and decided he could do a better job. Coyote wants to dissolve the existing world and create his own, by a process that is not quite clear or feasible.
After Mr. Feld is kidnapped and the end of the world begins, Ethan and his baseball playing girlfriend Jennifer T. Rideout, who in Mr. Chabon's apparently extreme commitment to be politically correct is part American Indian, head off on a voyage to stop Coyote from carrying out his somewhat evil scheme. They have to stop him from urinating in the pool that feeds the tree of the worlds, or so they are told by one of Jennifer T.'s obese aunts.
Off they go into Summerland, much in the style of Homer's "Odyssey," picking up companions along the way and encountering grave dangers and numerous tests. Eventually their oddball group forms a baseball team, and they play games in each town they come to. In the end, the fate of the universe comes down to a nine-inning game of baseball between Ethan's team, the Shadowtails, and Coyote's team, the Hobbledehoys, and without spoiling the ending, it involves Ethan and a game-winning home run.
Mr. Chabon is a wonderfully skilled writer, and his passionate creation of wild and colorful worlds and characters is lots of fun. The high points of the book are without question the ones having to do with baseball. When Ethan looks at a called strike, Mr. Chabon writes, "something troubled the air around Ethan's hands."
When Ethan's ragtag crew comes to a giant's lair, Ethan must try and catch three fastballs from Mooseknuckle John, and if he fails, the giant promises to turn them all into stir fry.
The giant throws the first one, and "there was a sizzling sound, like cold water dashed onto a hot skillet, and then Ethan's left hand seemed to explode." When he catches the second fastball, "Ethan's body began to vibrate furiously, as if he were a bell that had just been struck, and his poor left arm was the clapper. The molecules vibrated so swiftly that they finally vanished with a hiss of steam, and in their place, where once there had been a boy named Ethan Feld, there was only a shimmering red cloud of pure, screaming pain."
How does Ethan get out of that one? On the third pitch, he calls for the changeup.
The characters are often funny when in conflict or dialogue with one another. The love/hate, junior high relationship between Ethan and Jennifer T., who is a rough-and-tumble tomboy and a true ballplayer, is endearing and cute.
Mr. Chabon captures the sassy, resilient spirit of young boys and girls, and as in the Harry Potter series, humans are called different names by the creatures in a foreign world. In Summerland, humans are called ruebens.
Still, Mr. Chabon has too many balls in the air. The different worlds are hard enough to keep up with, but then Mr. Chabon expects us to keep up with the differences between shadowtails, graylings, ferishers, skrikers, she-Sasquatches, Big Liars, shaggurts, werefoxes, werebears, and wererats.
Near the end of the book, as the Shadowtails prepare for one of their final baseball games that will determine whether they can continue their journey, Ethan and Jennifer T. "scamper" back into the Middling, the real world. They land in what is supposedly Anaheim, Calif. though it is described as something like Mexico City, get captured by police, escape, and drag a washed up Cuban exile baseball player back to Summerland to play on their team.
The plot becomes cluttered, sometimes incoherent; any 11-year old that sticks with it is either very brave or very stubborn. With "Summerland," Mr. Chabon seems to be aiming for another screen adaption of one of his books. His novel "Wonder Boys," became a movie starring Michael Douglass. Previous to that, Mr. Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," the adult novel about a pair of comic book creators who try to change history.
It would be easy to say that "Summerland" is pure fun, and let its inconsistencies and weaknesses slide. It is fun, but the fact is, this isn't really a children's book. There's more to it than just magic and hardball. In fact, there's too much more, narratively and thematically, and the result is a confusing, overburdened narrative that strains the reader's patience.
As a story of myth extolling the beauty of baseball, it is great. As a flowing narrative, and as a book for young readers, it is a failure.

Jon Ward is a reporter on the metro desk of The Washington TImes.
SUMMERLAND
By Michael Chabon
Hyperion Books for Children, $19.95, 500 pages
REVIEWED BY JON WARD


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