Sunday, November 11, 2007

Review: Summerland

Summerland, by Michael Chabon
8/10, a young adult fantasy with quirky twists and turns

"Summerland" is considerably lighter than some of Chabon's other work; specifically, "The Final Solution" (a murder mystery) and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," an epic drama about the lives of two comic book creators. In "Summerland," young Ethan Feld must learn to be good at baseball with the help of his friend, Jennifer T. Rideout, so they can stop Coyote from unmaking the world.

Baseball, it turns out, is one of the mystical rituals that unites creatures of all the worlds. Ethan is not particularly good at it at the outset of the book; his teammates and opponents alike call him "Dog Boy," because his only strategy at the plate is to squeeze his eyes shut and hope for a walk. Jennifer T. (she insists on the initial) is good at it, and tries to help Ethan along. Things get strange when they're recruited by a scout, Ringfinger Brown, to be heroes and prevent the coming of "Ragged Rock," the end of the world.

The journey will take them to fabulous worlds, with fabulous creatures, and of course, both Ethan and Jennifer T. have family issues to work out. Chabon's vivid imagination is on brilliant display here, as he works a blending of Native American and current American mythos into the worlds of Summerland, Winterland, and the Middling. Part of the fun of the story comes from discovering the new creatures and lands with the children and their growing company, and from seeing what Coyote is up to in his machinations to destroy the universe.

The characters and dialogue are real enough to make you believe in the fantasy, just as they should be. Chabon has always had a gift for characters and description, which serves him as well in this fantasy as in his more "realistic" works. The book is thoroughly enjoyable on that score.

In fact, the quirks in the story come largely from Chabon injecting reality into the fantasy: several references to sexual traits and grittier details than you usually find in young adult fare (though perhaps not modern young adult fare). In this, he seems to be patterning his story after the old Native American mythos, in which there is sex, and plenty of it. But set against the idyllic summer backdrop of baseball and childhood, it seems a little disconcerting when it happens.

In addition, Chabon seems determined not to stick to the tropes of the YA novel. There are setups that are not resolved in the usual way, and the whole ending of the book seems a bit like a copout (almost a deus ex machina). But these, really, are not strong enough quibbles for me to warn people off of this book. It's a great read, thoroughly enjoyable all the way through, and if you come to the end without feeling a desire to sit back in a small town bleacher on a lazy summer day and watch a baseball game, you're a stronger person than I.

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