First he hooked us up with a bisexual, bed-hopping college student. A few years later, he introduced a drug-addled, bed-hopping college professor. Then, for his most daring invention, he provided a pair of comic-book savants struggling with fame, rage, and religion—who also did a bit of bed-hopping, come to think of it. And now, in the natural line of literary progression, he gives us…a cuddly werefox and a singing she-sasquatch named Taffy?
Michael Chabon, the 36-year-old wunderscribe of 2000’s Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, doesn’t seem like an obvious threat to J.K. Rowling and her vise grip on young-adult dollars. After all, from ballyhooed coming-of-age debut The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to tragicomic, pot-riddled Wonder Boys to heavyweight, plot-twisted K&C, Chabon’s big-people novels have become increasingly lofty and layered, sprawling entertainments best enjoyed with a nightstand dictionary and ample tome-on-chest time to contemplate the complexity of it all. Kids’ stuff, they ain’t. In fact, place Harry Potter in Chabon’s care and you can easily imagine that goody-goody li’l wiz overloaded with the kind of psychological issues (and perhaps an addiction to Vicodin) that would make battling Voldemort seem like a quick game of Quidditch.
With the bright and shiny new Summerland, however, Chabon, the father of three preteens and a natural bedtime storyteller, adeptly turns his dueling passions for baseball and the beasts of such fantasy classics as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe into a G-rated ripsnorter for a more innocent age bracket. In conjuring up entertainment for the entire family, though, the never-soft Chabon doesn’t completely evade reality; alcoholism and poverty and racism mingle with flying cars and bat-winged goblins and oracular clams (you know, bivalves that predict the future). And the author, having way too much fun filling up 500 90-mph pages, still enjoys his tricky, self-indulgent wordplay; Skidbladnir, ferishers, and skrikers are just a few of the silly, Tolkien-esque creations that delight and boggle on almost every page. In this tale of a really lousy athlete who must save the world with one shaky swing of the bat, Chabon leaves no reader behind—wee or wizened—and creates an all-inclusive yarn that is just as engaging and timeless as anything set in Narnia, Middle-earth, or yes, even Hogwarts.
Eleven-year-old Ethan Feld, “the worst ballplayer in the history of Clam Island, Washington,” hates baseball. “I hate it that they even count errors,” the quiet boy says. “What kind of game is that? No other sport do they do that…[I]n baseball they keep track of how many accidents you have.” This attitude causes his widowed father, “a designer of lighter-than-air dirigibles” and an avid fan of the national pastime, great dismay. Ever since Ethan’s mom died, baseball has been the only topic that father and son have been able to discuss (well, that and Dad’s state-of-the-art Zeppelina).
So Mr. Feld proudly cheers on his offspring after every dropped ball and strikeout, and Ethan, out of love for his sad dad, keeps whiffing at the plate, angering his snotty teammates on Ruth’s Fluff ‘n’ Fold Roosters, and praying that a little talent will rub off from Jennifer T. Rideout, the best ballplayer on Clam Island, the whispered-about daughter of the abusive town drunk, and, most important, Ethan’s loyal sidekick.
Ethan and Jennifer T. (never just Jennifer, mind you) play their games on Summerland, the westernmost tip of the odd little island where it has never—never—rained from June to September. But right around the time a curious critter (not a bushbaby, not a lemur, not a fox…) is seen buzzing around Ethan in lonely right field—and a chummy spirit from the Negro Leagues, Chiron “Ringfinger” Brown, tries to “recruit” Ethan for an ambiguous mission—the first drops of rain start to fall on the diamonds of Summerland.
And with this ominous onset of inclement weather, Chabon unleashes the action: That curious critter is Cutbelly the werefox, a ripe-smelling “shadowtail” capable of helping Ethan “scamper” into different dimensions of Summerland: the Middling (Clam Island), the paradisical Summerlands (note the extra S), and the nasty Winterlands (like, really nasty). Once safely separate, the worlds are now melting into one another no thanks to the evil Coyote—basically Beelzebub fanged and furred—who wants all the worlds to be one, to control or destroy as he sees fit. To stop Coyote—and save his father, kidnapped and questioned for his blimpy-airship secrets—Ethan will have to beat the bad guy at his own game—which is, of course, baseball.
For Chabon, who has already inked a deal for a Summerland sequel, the joy of creating a fantasy world is not so much in the serpentine journey but in the imagineering of the characters who show up along with way. Ethan and Jennifer T.—children thrust into the mature winds of responsibility—hook up with an cast-out Roosters teammate named Thor Wignutt, who thinks he’s a robot, and the surly Cinquefoil, one of the last remaining ferishers and the 12-inch-tall Home Run King of Three Worlds (72,954 dingers, to be exact). Ferishers look “like a bunch of tiny Indians out of some old film or museum diorama” and have eyes “the color of cider and beer, the pupils rectangular black slits like the pupils of goats.”
On the villainous side, Coyote is surrounded by “skrikers, graylings, hobs, goblins, lubbers, fire sprites, and beastmen of every imaginable breed and configuration, including weretrout and wereflies.” And the best set piece involves Ethan having “to catch a giant”—that is, catch three fastballs from a hungry leviathanic hurler named Mooseknuckle John, who plans on eating our heroes if Ethan drops a pitch.
Chabon isn’t shy about his belief in the healing powers of his preferred sport, and he has a sly time with the rah-rah tag line that baseball is a religion (“Old Mr. Wood…tossed the first fireball o’ creation”). Plus, when he’s not hammering home hardball as a metaphor for life—the section heads are “First Base,” “Second Base,” and so on, to the inevitable uplifting finish—the writer is referencing real-life players from Satchel Paige to Keith Hernandez and providing tips on how to throw the perfect slider.
Ethan’s confidence swells in proportion to his understanding and love of the game, and he eventually decides that he wants to be a catcher—which just happens to be the position his father played. And Chabon equates the tinkling magic of witnessing woodland faeries with the earthy tradition of a father passing his oiled-and-broken backstop’s mitt to his son:
Ethan placed his hand into the mitt. It was clammy inside, but in a pleasant way, like the feel of cool mud between the toes on a hot summer day….Ethan raised his left hand and gave the mitt a few exploratory flexes, pinching his fingers toward his thumb. It was heavy, much heavier than his fielder’s glove, but somehow balanced, weighing no more on one part of his hand than on any other. Ethan felt a shiver run through him, like the one that had come over him when he had first seen Cinquefoil and the rest of the wild Boar Tooth mob of ferishers.
It’s not spoiling anything to say that Summerland has a delirious string of happy endings, and maybe, just maybe a towering homer has a little something to do with how things turn out. Just about all of the myriad threads that Chabon lets dangle throughout the story—Jennifer T.’s pathetic father, the ferishers’ dwindling population, Thor Wignutt’s cyborgian possibilities—are wrapped up in clever, cheerful fashion. But give Chabon credit for not resorting to the cheap reanimation of dead parents. Instead, tucked away amid the playful epiloguing of characters, Chabon provides a healthy moment between father and son as they subtly touch on the subject of mom for the first time in a long time:
It was the kind of promise a father makes easily and sincerely, knowing at the same time that it will be impossible to keep. The truth of some promises is not as important as whether or not you can believe in them, with all your heart. A game of baseball can’t really make a summer day last forever. A home run can’t really heal all the broken places in our world, or in a single human heart. And there was no way that Mr. Feld could keep his promise never to leave Ethan again. All parents leave their children one day. Ethan knew that better now than he had ever known it before. But he was glad to have the promise nevertheless.
No worries: Lessons and morals and bittersweet moments are never burdensome in Summerland, but instead are tucked among the adventuring as in all truly great young-adult fare, from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three. Fan-first Chabon knows that kids (and adults, for that matter) have enough tangible problems to deal with, and if he wants to be blatant about complicated third acts that mirror real life, there’s always his day job as one of the most adept literary chroniclers of the human condition. His side trip into the world of all-ages adventure is about goofy, gross thrills and wild, woolly imagination and that sweet, edifying crack of the bat that can sometimes, in the most magical of places, keep the rain away. CP