Once upon a time, there was a book about a young, unwanted boy who discovers that he is the heir to an ancient and glorious tradition. Whisked away to a magical castle in England, he at last finds a place he can truly call home. The book became a literary phenomenon: newspapers wrote stories about it, parents as well as their children devoured it, and it was turned into a series of highly successful movies.
The book was called Little Lord Fauntleroy, and who the hell reads that anymore?
It certainly didn't make the list of the top 100 children's books produced by a recent poll, although Harry Potter, those other books about a young, unwanted boy who discovers he is the heir to an ancient tradition, took the top three slots. (Alice in Wonderland came in 12th, in case you were wondering, and The Cat in the Hat topped out at No. 76.)
There are basically three kinds of kids' books, and unfortunately all of them are represented on the aforementioned list: 1) rancid slabs of condescension churned out by hacks with little or no respect for children or their literary tastes (henceforth to be referred to as crap-lit); 2) books that, while enjoyable and pleasant and cute, will probably not withstand the test of time (poor little Cedric Fauntleroy falls into this category, as does Master Potter); and 3) the eternal stories that are plucked straight from that oddly skewed, marvelous world inhabited by children, books that adults can enjoy equally and on a wholly different level, books that remind us just a little of the sense of wonder we once possessed ourselves before we grew up and acquired checkbooks.
Michael Chabon's staggering new book, Summerland, belongs to this last category.
Chabon is, of course, the literary golden boy who wrote Wonder Boysand the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. (He was also recently tapped to tackle the script for the Spider-Man sequel, a prospect of spine-tingling wonderfulness.) Summerland is his first foray into children's literature, although his publishing company is being awfully discreet about that fact. The dust jacket bills it simply as "a novel," and I picked it up in Borders from a pile prominently displayed near the latest Stephen King tome on the main floor, rather than tucked away in the children's ghetto upstairs. This is a book executives could read on a train without looking furtive.
At its most overly simplified level, Summerland is about baseball. And clams. And death and loss and Coyote and Robin Goodfellow and Ragnarok and Yggdrasil the World-Tree and Sasquatch and werewolves and the Anaheim Angels and about seven thousand other things. It is a book of breathtaking audacity (how else can you describe a novel in which one of the main characters is the faerie prince Cinquefoil, the Home Run King of three worlds?) and charming humor. It is a book that treats the loss of a parent and the awkward pains of life and death without sentimentality or condescension. It gave me goosebumps while I was reading it.
I liked it a lot is what I'm trying to get across here.
The central character of Summerland is 11-year-old Ethan Feld, a young boy who has come with his recently widowed father to live on Clam Island, Washington, a boar-shaped island where it rains for at least 20 minutes a day, every day—except on the boar's tusk, where for the months of June, July and August, there is never a cloud in the sky. This magical rain-free zone is known as Summerland, and naturally it's where the baseball fields are located.
Ethan would just as soon not have any baseball fields there at all, being unquestionably the worst player ever to grace the island's leagues. But his dad, an inventor determined to demonstrate to the world the practicality of commuter dirigibles, loves baseball. Mr. Feld sees it as a metaphor for life, while Ethan just sees it as humiliating. But during yet another disastrous game, Ethan is scouted by an odd little man named Ringfinger Brown, who's there to recruit him as a hero. It seems that in the other worlds, connected to our mundane one like overlapping leaves on a tree, that old trickster Coyote (a.k.a. Shaitan, a.k.a. Loki, a.k.a. Prometheus), who brought fire, death and baseball to the world, is now attempting to bring about its final end. And it's up to Ethan, fellow baseball player Jennifer T., their strange friend Thor, Cinquefoil and a Sasquatch named Taffy to stop him.
Summerland is immensely complex and multilayered, filled with myths, legends, tall tales, painful truths, witty asides and at least one reference to Bull Durham. It is one of those rare books structured like an iceberg: the tiny bits protruding above the surface are scenic enough, but if you can manage to dive underneath and see the huge, complex mass supporting them—man! Chabon never patronizes, never explains, never insults his reader's intelligence. And in the process, he creates a book as dense and rich as New York cheesecake, one that works both on a superficial, funny, enjoyable level as well as on a much deeper, more archetypal one.
There are truths in Summerland—awkward ones, many of them, the kind that adults pretend don't exist and children desperately need to know. Toward the end of the book, Ethan encounters La Llorona, the Weeping Ghost, and realizes that she is in fact his dead mother:
He could feel the bones through her skin, just as he had when she lay dying in the hospital in Colorado Springs, those hollow angel bones of hers. . . . And in that moment he felt—for the first time that optimistic and cheerful boy allowed himself to feel—how badly made life was, how flawed. No matter how richly furnished you made it, with all the noise and variety of Something, Nothing always found a way in, seeped through the cracks and patches. Mr. Feld was right; life was like baseball, filled with loss and error, with bad hops and wild pitches, a game in which even champions lost almost as often as they won, and even the best hitters were put out 70 percent of the time. Coyote was right to want to wipe it out, to call the whole sad thing on account of darkness.
This, in addition to being superbly written, is drawn from that deep well of honesty that only the best writers seem to have access to, an honesty rarely seen in any book, let alone ones written for children. As Robin Goodfellow exclaimed in The Sandman, another literary work packed chock-full of eternal truths, "It never happened; yet it is still true. What magic art is this?"
It's a magic we could all use more of in our lives. Buy Summerland; give it to your children, your parents, your grandparents, your friends. Wait for them to pass it along to their children, who hopefully will be reading it long after Harry Potter has been banished to dusty secondhand shelves with little Cedric. Savor it yourself, and let it remind you of a time when those magical realms seemed just around the corner, almost close enough to touch.
SUMMERLAND BY MICHAEL CHABON; MIRAMAX BOOKS. HARDCOVER, 512 PAGES, $22.95.
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