Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Gratz, Alan. The Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Innings. Dial Books, 2009 (4 stars out of 4!).

I have been a baseball fan for my entire life, and as a Phillies fan, I have suffered the pit of despair and the pinnacle of ecstasy, so I have developed an appreciation for the mythology of the game. After this year’s sudden passing of Harry Kalas, long-time Phillies broadcaster and the only voice of the Phillies I have ever known, I found myself remembering seeing games at old Connie Mack Stadium and Veterans Stadium with my father, working at Veterans Stadium in 1990 and seeing Terry Mulholland’s no-hitter, and the other baseball facts and memories that comprise each fan’s individual mythos. Alan Gratz has tapped into this rich vein of nostalgia with The Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Innings. Mr. Gratz has crafted a well-coordinated group of short stories revolving around two related families, and although each of the nine “innings” stands on its own (some stand better than others), together they present the history of baseball in all of its childlike, and occasionally soiled, splendor.

The nine stories begin and end with fire, and the starting year is 1845, when Felix Schneider, child of German immigrants, unwittingly becomes part of the New York Knickerbockers’ “three-out, all-out” game. Alexander Cartwright, acknowledged by many to be baseball’s founder, asks him to call a close play, but before he can marvel at his situation, he suddenly realizes that the Knickerbockers, also known as the New York Knickerbocker Volunteer Fire Fighting Brigade, have a bigger problem: “Felix didn’t answer. He was transfixed by something over Cartwright’s shoulder, a towering plume of smoke billowing up from the rooftops . . . Manhattan was on fire” (14).

About 50 years later, in 1894, Arnold Schneider learns a valuable lesson about stardom, fame, and the ugly side of sports. After being incessantly picked on by his peers because of his size and lack of athletic prowess, he accidentally wanders over to the vaudeville district, where he sneaks in to see his hero, baseball slugger King Kelly. Unfortunately, Kelly is at the end of his career and has deteriorated into a hopeless alcoholic. When Arnold arranges for Kelly to come to the playground and trade stories with the boys, Arnold’s star rises dramatically. However, Arnold knows it will not last, and that his success will have to be paid for: “Arnold knew he should have felt triumphant. He was a legend. He had brought King Kelly, the Ten-Thousand Dollar Beauty, to Pigtown. But how long would it last? How long before he was little “Arnie” again, picked last every game . . . When the excitement of King Kelly went away, what would be left?” (93). Kelly proves to be a disappointment, but Arnold has his moment, though it costs him more than he expects.

About 50 years after King Kelly, Kat Flint wants nothing more than to play baseball, and being a member of the Grand Rapids Chicks is a dream come true. Ironically, the only thing that can destroy her dream is the fulfillment of everybody else’s dream, that the war will end. She ashamedly confesses that once the men come home, she will not be satisfied when things return to “normal” for women: “‘I don’t—I don’t want the war to end. I want my dad back safe of course, but I wouldn’t be here, now, without the war. There wouldn’t even be a girls’ league. And my mom, she’s so smart, so good with numbers, but she only got a job as an engineer because all the men are off fighting’” (181).

Other distinctive “innings” feature a family who experiences anti-Semitism without even being Jewish, a girl who runs numbers under the watchful eye of her police officer father, and a boy who is trying to pitch a perfect game for his little league team. All of the stories feature Brooklyn prominently as setting or background, and the stories are presented in chronological order one generation at a time.

I will not beat around the Flatbush: I loved this book. I felt the history of America’s game coursing through my veins as I read each successive story and I laughed and cried with the colorful characters and situations as they illuminated our collective history from 1845 to the present. Cleverly, the book is written in nine sections (innings) with three chapter (outs) per section. Additionally, Mr. Gratz’s endnotes, in which he briefly discusses his research for the book, demonstrates an appropriate reverence for and devotion to baseball’s history that will appeal to fans of any age. This would be a great father and son or mother and daughter book. The Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Innings by Alan Gratz is a superior young adult sports novel that, like Gary Soto’s short baseball stories, not only presents real characters but also poignantly shows readers the best and worst that our country and its people can offer.

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