Michelle Erica Green penned this sterling review.
It’s already been established that baseball exists primarily to serve as a metaphor for the meaning of life. If you didn’t get that from Malamud’s The Natural or Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, then surely you got it from Mays’ Say Hey or Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. So it should come as no surprise that Summerland, the most recent novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, reiterates this all-important theme. And should you be a reader who is only happy when the Red Sox are winning or who actually doesn’t like baseball — should you fail to appreciate that “a baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day,” to quote Chabon — then Summerland is even more important for you.
Summerland reads like a seamless merger of A Wrinkle In Time and Field of Dreams. Ethan Feld, who has lost his mother to cancer and his father to an obsession with building the perfect personal airship, has been uprooted and moved to Clam Island, Washington, where Little League is a vital pastime. But Clam Island has been invaded by a horde of corporate goons plotting to rip up the grounds of the old Summerland Hotel…the immediate result of which is the first rainfall (and the first called game) on the tip of the island since before the oldest residents can remember. Although Ethan is a terrible player, he is recruited by a mysterious baseball scout to cross over to the real Summerlands — one of the four branches of the great Lodgepole that holds up the Worlds, now under attack by the trickster Coyote. As Ethan learns, Coyote has come up with a plan to destroy the Lodgepole and bring about the end of everything. All Coyote needs are the fibers invented by Ethan’s father for his airship. And the only way to stop Coyote is for Ethan to travel through the Summerlands with a small troupe of friends, playing baseball in exchange for whatever help they can muster.
Ethan’s father gets abducted to the icy Winterlands, which surround the well that feeds the Tree of Worlds. Coyote wants to use his non-reactive fibers to poison the well and bring about Ragged Rock, “the last day of the last year… the last out in the bottom of the ninth… the day when the Story finally ends.” As Ethan fights giants, wicked ferishers (fairies), sea monsters and his personal demons to prevent this catastrophe, he acquires a magical bat carved from a splinter of the Lodgepole. Alone, it’s not a powerful enough weapon to fight Coyote, for Ethan has to learn to wield it, and the bat has an imperfection in the handle that causes him a lot of pain. But he cannot afford to strike out, for his watch is running a countdown in innings, telling him that he doesn’t have many more at bats before everything he has ever loved and hated will disappear into nothingness.
Among Ethan’s allies are a talented young female pitcher named Jennifer T., a strange boy named Thor who thinks he’s an android, a ferisher leader named Cinquefoil, and a variety of other magical creatures including a midget giant, a talking rat and a secretive Sasquatch. Because of an old trick of Coyote’s that separated the Gleaming (the world of the gods) from the Middling (the home of humans), there are no higher powers to help. It’s all up to Ethan and his friends, who have their own doubts and fears to overcome. And their adversary is the prince of lies. Like many devils, Coyote is charming and seductive, and it’s hard not to think that some of his changes may have been for the better. But not only did Coyote steal rain from Thunderbird and fire from Old Man Wood himself, he concocted the despised designated hitter. The motley team struggles bravely onward but Coyote keeps finding ways to stall and trick them as they head into the home stretch.
Summerland is being marketed as a fantasy novel for young adults, but please don’t let that fool you. This is young adult fiction in the same way The Lord of the Rings is young adult fiction, in that an eleven-year-old can enjoy it, but may then reread it every year for the next ten years and continue to find something new each time. There are archetypes that will be familiar to readers of classic fantasy — young heroes who have lost their parents, a quest that will determine the future of the world. And some elements may remind readers of great moments in earlier children’s literature — a pair of glasses that operate rather like Mrs. Who’s from A Wrinkle In Time, and a magical bat that, like Harry Potter’s wand, seems to have chosen its wielder for reasons of its own.
There’s a lot of legend and theology packed into these pages, incorporating Native American shamanism, African-American folklore, English and Irish fairy tales, Norse myths and the handbook of an Indian scouting group for children. What’s most striking are the common elements in these and other spiritual tales — the Shapeshifter, the Tree of Life, the Wellspring, the Middling between Worlds, the coming of Ragnarok/Ragged Rock/Armageddon. The presence of the unseen dominates the narrative, as Ethan and Jennifer come to believe in ferishers and werewolves and, ultimately, the resiliency of love, even when it can’t be viewed or touched. This isn’t a story where all wounds can be healed, but all sins can be forgiven or at least understood. There are also purely delightful comic elements, such as a fairy treasury of lost human items including AAA batteries, the strings from bathing trunks, unmatched socks and buttons and all the Easter eggs that ever got lost under hedges.
And since this is a story focused on the great American quest — the perfect game — there’s a dazzling collection of anecdotes and images from the so-called real world. Some are quite hideous — loggers and paranoid security officers, neglectful fathers and dying mothers — while others offer poignant visions of hope, like a Little League coach who insists on playing his most hopeless team members and a burned-out professional ballplayer who rediscovers himself as a late recruit for Ethan’s team. The easiest way to get from place to place in the Worlds is to “scamper” — think tesseract, only within a set of parallel Earths — so members of the team occasionally drift out of the Summerlands into the mundane Middling where ferishers can only be seen by those who believe in them. Except for the Gleaming, the lost World of the spirits, events in each realm affect those in the others, and people occasionally wander by accident from one World to another, usually because they’re some sort of mongrel, mutt, misfit, oddball or changeling in the first place, for those are the people who can navigate the twists and galls of the Tree.
Summerland is a yarn in the old-fashioned sense of the word — a long, tangled story that interrupts itself with first-person narration, apologetic flashbacks, refresher courses in the form of lectures given by senior characters, and the texts of non-fiction books written by ferisher baseball players and scouting experts of long ago. All baseball references are given in “universal” dates understood in all the Worlds, though they’re untraceable here in the Middling. The story has the feel of a legend passed down over the ages, not a contemporary novel, and the wide range of mythical beasts and iconic figures strengthen the environmentalist and socially conscious themes running through it. For all the fantastical flora and fauna of Summerland, which may bring to mind C.S. Lewis, T.H. White and the Brothers Grimm, its theme is that we all share one Lodgepole, and have a common responsibility to take care of it and of each other. It’s sort of like being on a big baseball team.