Michael Chabon's 'Summerland' puts the fate of the world in the palm of a kid's baseball mitt
Seattle Times book editor
Once upon a time, author Michael Chabon lived on Vashon Island. He was a literary one-book-wonder in his late 20s, thrashing away on a second novel, a years-long effort that would never be published.
It can only be imagined that diversions were welcome. Chabon's came in the form of a pint-sized baseball player:
"I knew a family of three boys who were all in Little League," he recalled recently, speaking from his Berkeley home. "One boy came to me and asked if I would keep score for their team. I love keeping score. I became the official scorekeeper for this Little League team."
Our introduction notwithstanding, the above is a true story and, as we shall see, a signal lesson in the way a writer's mind works. If only us lesser mortals could learn it.
Today Chabon, 39, is a literary superstar. He wrote "Wonder Boys." He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," a tale of two pioneers in the Golden Age of comics. He's writing the screenplay for the new Spiderman movie.
But the project dearest to his heart is "Summerland" (Hyperion/Miramax, $22.95), a wildly fantastic, mythology-rich fantasy novel for children of all ages that came out last month.
Guess where the center of Chabon's universe is set:
"Clam Island was a small, green, damp corner of the world. It was known, if known at all, mostly for three things. First was its clams. Second was the collapse, in 1943, of the giant Clam Narrows Bridge. ...
"The Clam Islanders had never really taken to the bridge that connected them to the mainland, and they were not sorry to see it go. They went back to riding the Clam Island Ferry, which they greatly preferred. You could not get a cup of coffee, or clam chowder, or hear all about your neighbor's sick cousin or chicken, on the Clam Narrows Bridge. ... A lot of people seemed to feel that maybe there just ought not to be a bridge connecting Clam Island to the mainland. Islands have always been strange and magical places; crossing the water to reach them, ought to be, even in a small way, an adventure."
"Summerland," an ambitious, imaginative, rollicking and at times dark yarn, propels three Clam Island Little League players into a very large adventure. Nothing less than the fate of the universe hinges on how 11-year-old Ethan Feld, his tough-girl best friend Jennifer T. Rideout, and his friend Thor Wignutt (who may or may not be an android) play baseball. It features a pantheon of characters from American folklore and mythology, with a few Norse myths thrown in for good measure — some good, some bad, some ambiguous, all larger than life and like all gods everywhere, given to toying with human beings ("reubens" in Summerland-ese) for the fun of it.
It was a long time aborning, a tale from the recesses of the author's childhood. As he did in "Kavalier and Clay," Chabon was inspired by the reading matter of his childhood. In "Kavalier" it was comic books. "Summerland" is informed by the great English writers of childhood fantasy, including J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Susan Cooper, author of "The Dark Is Rising" series.
But the fantastic creatures that people its landscape are authentically American.
"When I was a kid I loved fantasy, and I loved reading stories that were about contemporary children, like 'Harriet the Spy' and 'The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,' " Chabon said. "But I loved the most those that combined the two, recognizably contemporary children who had adventures in other realms, adventures in the world of British and Celtic mythology.
"I wanted to use American mythology and folklore as a backdrop in the same way. It was a very old idea, and one I got back to."
"Summerland" begins on Clam Island. Chabon says he took Vashon and slid it up to "an indeterminate place near Whidbey Island, where it rains every day, except for one place where it never rains."
He writes: "Over the rest of Clam Island the sky, as usual during the summer months, was more pearly than blue, gray but full of light, as though a thin cotton bandage had been stretched across the sun. Here in Summerland, however, the sky was cloudless and a rich, dark, blue, almost ultramarine. ... The sun felt warm on Ethan's cheeks. He half closed his eyes. Maybe, he thought, baseball was a sport best enjoyed from the bench."
For Ethan is a truly awful baseball player. He and his father, a flaky free-lance genius inventor, have moved there to get over the death of Ethan's mother. His dad loves baseball. Ethan plays to make his father feel better.
One day, Ethan and his friends stumble on a portal into an alternate world. Their escort is a foxlike creature (a "werefox") called Cutbelly. After brief glimpses of this critter, Ethan wakes one morning to find a "little red fox-monkey" sitting on his chest, who introduces himself thusly: "My name is Cutbelly. I am a werefox. I am seven hundred and sixty-five years old. I have been sent to offer you everlasting fame and a fantastic destiny."
What transpires is considerably more challenging than everlasting fame — like Frodo in "Lord of the Rings," Ethan signs on for Big Trouble. He, Jennifer and Thor find themselves battling the arch-villain Coyote, an oddly likeable fellow with a heart of ash who hopes to destroy the universe pretty much for the heck of it.
As the three trudge through several alternate worlds, the motley members of their baseball team, the Shadowtails, play their hearts out in hopes of forestalling doomsday (and saving Mr. Feld, who has been taken hostage by Coyote). They meet, befriend and sometimes do battle with a host of mythological creatures of the American continent, including:
• Ferishers, who have their roots in fairy lore but have more to do with Native American legends of the little people. "These were people doing the very same thing as fairies and other creatures. They were mischievous, prankish and would punish you if you crossed them," says Chabon.
• Taffy the Sasquatch, a maternally inclined bigfoot with a tragic past.
• La Llorona, a figure from Southwestern American folklore, "a kind of weeping banshee," says Chabon. "She appears by the side of the water to tell you that you're going to die. Some people say she punishes bad mothers. Sometimes she's just a punishing figure in general." It is this figure, Chabon says, that made his own 8-year-old daughter pull the covers up over her head when he read "Summerland" aloud to her.
• An entire ball club of figures from American folklore, titled The Big Liars, which the kids must best to keep things from going entirely to hell. They include The Tall Man with the Harpoon (based on Old Stormalong, a hero of whaling), The Tall Man with an Ax (Paul Bunyan), the Tall Man with a Hammer (John Henry), the Tall Man with the Rattlesnake Necktie (Pecos Bill), the Tall Man with the Knife in His Boot (Staggerlee) and The Tall Woman in a red silk dress (Staggerlee's girlfriend).
Coyote has his own platoons of nasty rampaging minions: graylings, werewolves, goblins and the odd rapacious real-estate developer. The kids and their sidekicks navigate through the cosmos in Skidbladnir, a kind of floating ship based on a similar contraption in Norse mythology. The Tree of Worlds, the great tree of the Universe that Coyote is doing his best to do in, is also based on Norse mythology.
A children's book
So who's going to buy this 500-page book, kids or adults?
Chabon, father of three, including the 8-year-old, a 5-year-old and a 16-month-old, says it's a children's book.
"I hope people will buy it for their kids," Chabon says. "I'm not going to insist that my adult readers buy it and read it, though I actually think that they will. It stands very much as a piece for the rest of my work. I don't see a lot of difference, other than it's overtly fantastic.
"I tried to write it as well as I possibly can, and in terms of language and characterization, I don't feel like I was making many compromises."
So here's a view from the bleachers, children's version:
I read "Summerland" aloud this summer to my 11- and 8-year-old, and they hung on to every word. Though some parts seemed "like a really bad dream" (my 11-year-old son), Ethan and Jennifer's epic has made everything we've read since seem insipid and formulaic.
It's true that "Summerland" could be a third shorter, less improbable and a tidier package: "When a fantasy tale has to pause too frequently to explain new characters, places, spells, ancestors and obstacles — as this one does throughout its belabored first half — then pruning is in order," wrote Janet Maslin of The New York Times.
But to my mind, Chabon's imagination, humanity, humor and wordplay make him a beautiful fit for creating the deeply textured and detailed world that kids love.
And if you live in this corner of the world, dip into "Summerland" for Chabon's take on Puget Sound's magical aspects, from its enchanted landscape to its authentically Northwestern characters, like Ethan's kindly old Little League Coach Olaffsen and Johnny Speakwater, an oracular clam who spits water as he (she? it?) predicts the future.
Ethan's future will be shaped by the two sequels, perhaps with the same characters but with a different hero — one could hope to hear more from the tough-but-tender Jennifer, a girl from a bad home who lives for baseball, and the one in "Summerland" with the real grit.
But it's a good bet that Ethan will be back to help save the bacon. In the words of Johnny Speakwater, who spits out his prophecies in a stream of clam phlegm:
"FELD IS THE WANTED ONE
"FELD HAS THE STUFF HE NEEDS"
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org.