by Alan Gratz
First sentence: “Nine months ago, Felix Schneider was the fastest boy in Bremen, Germany.”
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This book is one of the more unique ones I’ve read recently. It’s not that it’s tackling something different or controversial. Rather, it’s quite the opposite: it’s a sweeping portrait of a family, a game, a nation. Quiet in its execution, yet grand in its ambition, Gratz pulls off something I didn’t think was possible: this book is a slice of Americana through and through.
The format is clever, too: it’s a series of short stories, told in nine “innings”, that travel through the years. Beginning in 1845, with a German immigrant, Felix Schneider, and going until present, the stories offer up a picture of how baseball — and America — has evolved over the last 160 years. Gratz touches on all the major highlights of Americana: there’s a Civil War soldier, Vaudeville, gangsters, racism and the Negro League, the All-American Girls Baseball league, and the Cold War. As in the case of all short story collections, some of the stories work better than others: in my case, the further back in time, the better the story; the final two more modern stories felt a bit cliched to me. But, even with its unevenness, it’s a fabulous undertaking. This is probably sounding like a sports book, and in some ways it is — I think there are many baseball-minded boys out there who would love the book — but, it’s so grounded in history and in family that baseball becomes more a character in the story than just a game that people played. That, and the stories — and especially the authors notes in the back, which I flipped to and read after every chapter — make the game itself sound quite fascinating.
At one point, I thought that it would have been nice to read these stories backward, beginning with the present day, and working back to 1840s. But, that’s just me being particular. This book really is a wonderful little story.
(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)