A Review of Summerland by Michael Chabon

Chabon has fashioned from initially unpromising material and after a wobbly beginning a book that should appeal to every reader. How well it will thrive as a book labeled for young readers is another matter. It is unfortunate that it may need to be around for some time before it finds its audience. In the present day glut of books printed and touted with extravagance, it is possible for an excellent book by even a noted author to sink into the flood. Summerland possesses all the virtues that made Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay benchmark works for serious comedies.
Reviewed by Bob Williams 

by Michael Chabon
Hyperion Books for Children (Miramax Books), 2002, ISBN 078680877-2, 500 pages, $22.95

Michael Chabon, writer of well-regarded books for adults, here creates a book for younger readers. The audience for this book would be around the same age as those who best manage to read the books of J.K. Rowling. Baseball is heavily involved in the plot and that might loose some of the reader audience, baseball not being as universally attractive as magic. But there is magic in Summerland.

The inhabitants that we meet immediately are Ethan and his father Mr Feld as they drive to a Mustang League baseball game on Clam Island. Mr Feld is a widower, a baseball enthusiast and a creator of dirigibles. Their island seems at first to be something of an Island for Lost Boys since Mr Feld does not seem an adult in the normal sense. He is a dreamer and impractical about most things but a better than competent father. He fields his son’s wish to give up baseball at which he is a failure by letting Jennifer T. Rideout simply tell him that it is impossible. The father and son have seen a strange animal that had some of the characteristics of a fox and some of a bushbaby on their way to pick up Jennifer T. and in a few pages Chabon has managed premiss and characterization with efficient dispatch.

At the game Ethan’s team is close to winning. A contributing cause is Ethan’s relegation to the bench. As the game nears its conclusion Ethan takes off to pursue the animal that he had seen earlier. The chase takes him to the northwest shore of the island. Here he sees four unpleasant men in business suits examining what was once a resort area. The animal helps him to escape from them and he returns to the game in time to take a turn at bat and loose the game for his team. The animal, a werefox named Cutbelly, is not the only agent to take a prominent place in Ethan’s life. There is also an old baseball player, Ringfinger Brown, who has the power to read Ethan’s mind. All of these elements converge at Ethan’s next meeting with the werefox who takes him on an expedition to meet yet other denizens of a world that he has never suspected. The mechanics of the journey are esoteric and perhaps easier for a younger reader than I to accept.

The others are the Neighbors. In appearance they combine elements of an Indian tribe and elves. For a few pages the book teeters dismally on the edge of complete confusion. The people are menaced by Coyote who wishes to sever the connections between the world in which Ethan lives and that occupied by the Neighbors. Ringfinger Brown has recruited him to act as their savior. Being extremely baseball minded, they are disappointed in Ethan but his election is confirmed by their oracle, a giant clam named Johnny Speakwater. A raven – thought to be Coyote in disguise – kidnaps the clam to the consternation of Chief Cinquefoil and his people.

The elements so far presented are standard enough and not necessarily bad for being so. The young fool must rescue a kingdom and in this case the kingdom situated off the coast of Washington near the Pacific Northwest has a kind of Indian population. His enemy is a trickster well known in Indian mythology, Coyote. At this point in Summerland he resembles Satan more than the familiar mischief-maker, as much admired as decried in the Indian tales. Bricolage has its perils and Chabon has ventured into dangerous paths. The combination of all these elements with baseball shows that Chabon has great courage. He has yet to prove that he can make a book of all this. He is also running the risk, common in fantasy, that when anything can happen, nothing that happens much matters.

Ethan recovers Johnny from the raven by striking the raven with a spectacular pitch but the enormous clam falls on him and knocks him out. When he recovers he is back in his father’s world and this proves to be for me a better one than the world he had just left. This world is filled with eccentrics and plain folk lovingly depicted. There is Albert Rideout, Jennifer T.’s brutal fundamentalist father; Ethan’s coach, simultaneously patient and made desperate by his loser of a team; and Thor Wignutt who is convinced that he is android whose real name is TW03. Along with the inept but wise and lovable Mr Held these all comprise a great cast of characters. I suspect that Chabon could have made a very good book of these, a book that would have entranced many young readers and many old ones.

The baseball field is in a corner of the island that has been exempt from the generally rainy climate. The invasion of Coyote has changed this and the game at which Ethan, now convinced that he will make a good catcher and anxious to play, is interrupted by rain. The Neighbors whistle the rain away for his benefit. He hits the ball and the play that depended on his hit would have succeeded except that Jennifer T. stumbles and is called out. Her father makes a disgraceful scene and Jennifer T. runs away. Mr Held and Ethan set out to find her but Mr Held has first to dismiss the untimely attentions of Rob Padfoot who represents himself as a developer of alternate flight devices – like Mr Held’s dirigible. Padfoot is a little suspect around the edges. Ethan finds Jennifer T. at the resort area in the northwest corner of the island. The abandoned buildings are gone but the earthmoving equipment that removed them sit in rows. The development company, it appears, is a front for Coyote. Ringfinger Brown joins the two youngsters and talks to Jennifer T. He is apparently about to recruit her in the cause of saving Summerland when Mr Held with several others appear in their search for Jennifer T. and he disappears.

Ethan and Jennifer T. practice catching and pitching respectively but a wounded Cutbelly appears and takes them off to Summerland. They arrive too late and fierce creatures called skrikers have all but annihilated the Indian tribe, only Cinquefoil seems to have survived. On the way back to their world the shadows that haunt their path take Cutbelly prisoner and they turn up on a part of Clam Island far distant from their original point of entry. Ringfinger Brown drives up. He has given up and is leaving. He tells the youngsters that there is nothing more that they can do. Ethan knows that he must tell his father what has happened. He knows that Mr Held, a complete and consistent rationalist, will not believe him and will consider him demented. He and Jennifer T. make their way to her home since it is closer than Ethan’s.

But, it proves, Jennifer T.’s three aged aunts and Uncle Mo are not only prepared to believe the youngsters, they can add to the story. One of the aunts tells them that they must reach the well that nourishes the world tree before Coyote does. Otherwise he will pollute the well and the result will be the end of the world, Ragged Rock. They need a guide to replace Cutbelly and decide that the best replacement is someone not quite of this world, someone like Thor Wignutt.

Ethan returns home to talk to his father and Jennifer T. goes to recruit Thor. He finds the house deserted. Rob Padfoot’s sunglasses are on the kitchen table and a wounded Cinquefoil appears. While he and Ethan talk, Ethan puts on Padfoot’s glasses. In them he sees his father, a captive of Coyote whose agent Padfoot is.

Although the mythological trappings have become more complicated and less explicable, the emphasis of the action has found a center that does not depend upon them. Chabon has shaken the worlds of Summerland and Clam Island together so thoroughly that the division between them is difficult to discern. This operates greatly to the book’s advantage which otherwise might succumb to the dreariness of fantastic but empty invention. It is now – as every successful book of this type must be – a matter more of character than incident.

Thor, after a wobbly start, proves to be a sufficient replacement for Cutbelly and they reach Summerland in a dirigible assembled by Ethan from his father’s prototype material. They are there only briefly before a giant named Mooseknuckle John plucks their dirigible from the air. He will eat the children but Cinquefoil offers him a wager. The giant will throw three pitches to Ethan and, if he can catch every pitch, he will let them go. Ethan, with the help of an instruction book given him by one of the emissaries of Summerland early in the book, succeeds. The giant lets them go. He does not know that they have in addition to defeating him stolen Taffy from him. Taffy is his pet Sasquatch.

At about a third of the way through the book Chabon shifts from the son to the father. We see him as captive of Robin Padfoot. More interestingly, we witness his conversation with Coyote himself. Coyote asks him to give him the formula for his miracle fiber. With this Coyote plans to kill the world tree and bring about the destruction of the universe. Coyote emerges as an intriguing and surprisingly sympathetic character. He is hard and inexorable, very much the spirit that denies, but he is also an active force and one that is inextricably wound into the world’s texture. Mr Held agrees, hoping to save Ethan, and bargains for the lab assistant of his choice. This proves to be Cutbelly whom he liberates from death by abandonment in the waste of the ice fields that surround them.

The youngsters in the meantime have had the misfortune of being taken prisoner by fairies, called ferishers in the book. One of the arrows has wounded Cinquefoil and all of the party is in a prison cell along with Spider Rose who has unwittingly done Coyote’s work with her people by the introduction of the designated hitter rule. I imagine this to be an elaborate baseball joke but it has the very practical consequence in the book of destroying the baseball field of the ferishers that adopted it. Thor was not altogether wrong in assuming that he was not human but he was mistaken to regard himself as an android. He is really a ferisher, a changeling. This is an interesting and compelling image of the alienation experienced by many youngsters. He is able by the exercise of magic power to leave the cell and take Ethan along with him. They search for Ethan’s club. It has the magic properties needed to cure the wounded Cinquefoil. In the pursuit of this purpose they are apprehended by the treasury guardian of their captors. He proves to be, if not exactly a friend, at least an accomplice and even converts Ethan’s club into a baseball bat – except for the grip. This has a troublesome knot that only Ethan can remove. Removal, if a failure, will ruin the bat. Ethan’s nerve fails him and he takes the unfinished bat as is. When they return to the cell the other prisoners are gone. A wererat, bribed by the promise of food from the store in their dirigible, has freed them.

The dirigible is no more. The material that made it up has been converted into clothing for the captors. But the youngsters – through the power of Ethan’s bat, made from a part of the world tree – has restored the baseball field. As a reward they receive their freedom, a magical map required to complete their journey and the addition to their party of Spider Rose, the queen’s daughter. Ethan asks for the freedom of Grim the Giant who is of true giant blood but is no taller than Ethan. The queen will grant this only if the strangers can defeat them in a game of – you guessed it – baseball. They do so and continue the journey in the car that Cinquefoil had incorporated into Ethan’s dirigible. The hero has received his princess but it is an ironic gift. He is not interested in her and she is a brat.

As they travel they play baseball with every group that they meet. Their record – two wins and seven losses – is not brilliant. The signs of Ragged Rock are everywhere. They arrive at the brink of the great natural obstacle of their quest, a river guarded by a monster. Crossing this would take them to Applelawn but the Big Liars stop them and challenge them to a game. Ethan and Jennifer T. with Thor as their guide seek by crossing back into the middle world a ninth player, one that has been frequently mentioned from the beginning of the book, Rodrigo Buendia. This is an important game since the Big Liars are willing for the world to end and, although they use a conjure to win the game, Jennifer T. outwits them.

The astute reader will have foreseen that the ultimate showdown would involve a baseball game between Coyote and his enemies from Clam Island and elsewhere so there is little point in dwelling on this or on the other details of the book’s conclusion. What is more noteworthy is the ability of the author to implant such profound and such mature insights into a novel written for young readers. His comments on the motives of the henchman of Coyote are relevant to more than the context of the novel.

Chabon has fashioned from initially unpromising material and after a wobbly beginning a book that should appeal to every reader. How well it will thrive as a book labeled for young readers is another matter. It is unfortunate that it may need to be around for some time before it finds its audience. In the present day glut of books printed and touted with extravagance, it is possible for an excellent book by even a noted author to sink into the flood. Summerland possesses all the virtues that made Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay benchmark works for serious comedies. Summerland has flaws, many and serious, but these are offset by gracious gifts and radiant virtues.

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About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://fracman.home.mchsi.com/