Thursday, August 25, 2011

Summerland by Michael Chabon

I don’t know that much about baseball. But what I do know about it, I learned from Michael Chabon’s Summerland, which is pretty impressive, because now there is a game I know all of these new words for like “designated hitter” and also “walk” and hey, my ability to identify any of that comes from a five hundred page children’s book. Which is funny because baseball definitely makes a small appearance in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, or you know, plays quite heavily and also brings about the only action that occurs in the entire thing, but I can’t remember learning anything about baseball through that except for that sports would be a lot more fun to watch with vampires playing because of their superhuman abilities that make you think, oh, or also, that’s steroids.

I read Summerland for the first time when I was in middle school, kind of right around the same age as the protagonists are, eleven-year-olds Ethan Feld, Jennifer T. Rideout, and Thor Wignutt. At the time I really thought Michael Chabon was a children’s author and I’d always check the children’s/YA section at the bookstore like, “Oh my god, is there another one, why isn’t there another one?” And I sort of thought that was it for a really long time, until I was in a library and found the Michael Chabon shelf which covered a pretty ridiculous amount of space, and kind of kicked myself and thought, “Oh. Well. That makes sense. Yeah. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning author whose books have also been turned into movies and also look at these essay collections so I guess what really happened is that he was an adult literary writer who decided to write a children’s book and not the other way around.”

In the last few years I’ve been able to read a good amount of Chabon: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Wonder Boys, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Maps and Legends, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. All of which he’s kind of extremely well-known for. And then last year I picked up Summerland again and it was this really great bookend to all of my Chabon reading. So great that I was like, “Okay! Here is what I’ll defend for my MA! Summerland!” And so I wrote all academically on that book and so it’s maybe cheating a little to go ahead and write a review here, but also not really, because even with all of that time and investment into one book, it’s really the story and the narrative that Chabon writes that brought me back to the book ten years after the first time I read it.

Chabon really brings a lot together in Summerland: Norse mythology, the geography and history of the West Coast, adolescence, and an American mythology of baseball. His main character, Ethan, moves to Clam Island with his father, and plays on the Little League team with Jennifer T. and Thor. But these characters don’t spend too much time in the real world. It isn’t long until they learn that the land that the baseball fields occupy, located at the tip of the island, bridge into the fantastical world of the Summerlands. And that’s where these three characters crossover to.

The Summerlands are ordered by baseball. Ethan and his friends follow a quest narrative that is punctuated by the baseball games that they play against other beings as they travel to the heart of the Summerlands to stop the end of the world. Ethan’s father, you see, has been taken by the trickster Coyote and Coyote has use for Mr. Feld’s patented helium material. He wants to use it to dissolves all of the worlds into nothing, and start over again.

Buried in this overarching quest narrative are tons of allusions to mythology and traditional storytelling that can just be followed endlessly. For example, Chabon largely uses Norse mythology to structure his fantastical worlds and the stories that take place in them are from important Norse characters and structures: Loki, Odin, and Yggdrasill. And then there is that other key mythology, that of the game of American baseball, which Chabon shows has its own legends, lore, characters, heroes, and language. The mythology fleshes out the fantastical, almost as if it backs it with a certain truthfulness or familiarity to readers.

Even after spending a LONG time writing on Summerland, I still really want to keep going back and back to it. There is just so much in there and so many trails of mythology and story.  And it’s really exciting to see what happens when adult literary authors like Chabon turn to writing for children. I kind of feel like I’m going to be checking the shelves again for another one like, “Okay, a lot of time has passed, another kid’s book please?”


ella said...

I will give this one a look. Not for a long time has a book touched me as much as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay did. I missed those characters terribly for a long time after finishing it which I guess is a very good sign of a great book!

Great blog by the way. Good to see Shaun Tan featured too. The Red Tree is pure magic

girltotherescue said...

Summerland has that same feeling of being right in the middle of a BIG story (which is how I felt about Kavalier and Clay). And Chabon is such a great author that it's nice having a children's book from him!