Book Review: Summerland



It’s not quite baseball season, but a few months from now, our home will be all about the ballfields as all three boys play baseball. My youngest son and I just finished up Summerland by Michael Chabon. I’ve read this long book about baseball and magic and mythology with all three boys now, and while there are times when I think Chabon has set off on a direction he never resolves, I love the ideas and the writing and the way baseball’s wondrous qualities form the center of this story.

“A baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day” (p.332)

The plot is complicated: a boy, Ethan Feld, must set off on a journey into parallel worlds not only to save his father from Coyote, that trickster who seems to pop in all sorts of forms in all cultural mythologies, and to save the entire Worlds (there are four, each of them attached to the other through thin bonds of connections that some beings can “scamper” into from one world to the next) from Coyote’s plan to destroy everything, and start all over again. Baseball is the underpinning narrative device, as Ethan and his friends (some human, most not) must travel through the Summerlands, playing ball against teams of odd creatures (including giants, ferishers and more), and trying to make their way to the Murmury Well, where the tree of life is found and on the verge of destruction.

Chabon skillfully captures the lazy magic of baseball, with all of its slow-moving plays and the sense that anything can happen at any moment when you are standing at bat or in the field. The characters are rich (even Coyote seems likeable at times), and the settings are so oddly created by Chabon, that it does make for a nice read-aloud, particularly to an audience that enjoys baseball (ie, my sons). And one of the underlying themes of loss, and the unexplainable pain that comes with living a life (Ethan’s mother has died and he hopes the magic of the journey will bring her back. It doesn’t.)

Since this is my third time reading this book out loud at home (plus another time I read it to my class), you might think I would be bored with the story and the characters and the many varied looks at the game of baseball as a metaphor for life. But I wasn’t. Chabon has created a rich story, although its complicated elements might make it difficult reading for some readers not versed in baseball and mythology and Tall Tales (oh yeah, Paul Bunyan and Annie Christmas and others play an important role in the story). This is not a book you can put into just anyone’s hands, and sometimes Chabon goes off a little far into his narrative tangents.

Still, consider this passage, which sums up so much about the book:

“Mr. Feld was right: life was like baseball, filled with loss and error, with bad hops and wild pitches, a game in which champions lost almost as much as they won, and even the best hitters were put out seventy percent of the time.” (p. 444)

I feel a bit sad now that Summerland is done. Luckily, the boys’ baseball season is coming around the bend. Our own version of Summerlands — that place of beautiful skies, green grass and endless possibilities just before the first pitch and the swing of the first bat — is something we should never give up. There’s something in that moment of pause that Chabon captures here that is worth considering, no matter the season.

Peace (in the summer),


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