Summerland by Michael Chabon
– Audiobook narrated by the author! –
Genre: Fantasy/Folklore, Adventure, Baseball (really)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Summary: 11-year-old Ethan Feld and his eccentric engineer father moved to the remote Clam Island after his mother passed away. There he was forced by his overly-enthusiastic father to join a little league baseball team, despite really sucking at, and consequently not being particularly fond of, baseball.
Just when Ethan decides to quit the game once and for all, he’s recruited by the famous pitcher (and hero scout) Chiron “Ringfinger” Brown and a group of tiny, fairy-like baseball enthusiasts called “ferishers” to be their champion in a bid to save the four worlds from destruction at the hands of the formidable Coyote.
And when his father is kidnapped to further Coyote’s nefarious purposes, Ethan and his friends have no choice but to go after him. Along the way they pick up a strange collection of new friends who help them on their quest and, as you may have guessed, play baseball.
I really don’t like baseball. Sorry. I don’t like sports. I’m not good at them, so trying to play them is just frustrating, and as they have no discernable story, watching them bores me. (Although sometimes I try to make one up–especially forbidden romances between football players. THE DRAMA.)
Summerland, however, is mostly about baseball, and I managed to thoroughly enjoy it anyway. There were even moments, when I found myself completely engaged with the various games the characters end up playing, I thought that maybe I could like baseball. Removed from the world of the book, I really don’t think that’s true. But here’s what Summerland has to say about baseball:
“The game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.”
This is more or less the philosophy of the book. It’s not even really about baseball, or just a summer day. It’s about waking up and paying attention to your own life! …But even so, this book is largely actually about baseball.
First and foremost, I would like to give Michael Chabon MAJOR PROPS for this audiobook. Something about hearing an author read his/her own work is just a real treat to me. Besides taking all the time and effort to create the audiobook, Chabon is also an amazing and often hilarious voice actor! There are soooo many whacky characters in this book (more on that in a bit) and he manages to give each and every one of them a distinct and memorable voice. Hearing him read multi-character conversations pretty much blew my mind at times.
The mythology(ies) of Summerland are fantastic, often based on Norse mythology, Native American, and American folklore. We find out that the world is comprised of four worlds, which are actually four branches of a giant tree commonly called the “lodgepole.” Each of the four branches–The Summerlands, The Winterlands, The Middling (where we live), and The Gleaming (some sort of god world that was sealed off ages ago by Coyote), also branches off into hundreds of other tiny branches. Certain people, called “shadowtails” can “scamper” amongst these branches to travel quickly throughout a world, or “leap” between worlds, if there is a place where the branches are connected.
The great tree is fed by a body of water called “Murmury Well.” Coyote’s plan is to poison the well AND END ALL EXISTENCE.
There is so much going on in this story that my summary doesn’t really cut it, and part of that is due to the HUGE cast of characters. The phrase Stephanie and I like to use is “TMC” – too many characters! We use it when a story has so many characters that there’s no time to properly develop any of them, or in extreme cases, have them contribute to a conversation. When there are TMC, less-interesting characters are frequently forgotten, and more-interesting characters don’t get the spotlight they deserve. I would say that TMC is the one weakness of Summerland, which is otherwise fantastic.
That’s not to say we don’t get any character development–we certainly do! Especially Ethan Feld, who struggles with the loss of his mother, and then his father when he’s kidnapped, and being a failure, and trying to be a hero when he has no idea what he’s doing. One of the most stunning moments of the book to me was very near the end. After months of travelling in the Summerlands and facing all kind of dangers and adventures, Ethan breaks down and says, “I’m just a little kid.”
The other kids in the book are Jennifer T. Rideout and Thor Wignutt. Jennifer T. really steals the show at times. She’s the only girl, and really the only talented player, on their little league team and LIVES for baseball. She’s tough and don’t take shit from nobody, but comes from a broken home that has obviously hurt her deeply. Thor is a boy who thinks he is an android who desperately wants to be a normal boy. No, seriously. He goes by the name TW03. I love him.
So besides these three kids, each of whom I find interesting enough to be the protagonist, we also get Cinquefoil, chief of a ferisher tribe which is destroyed by Coyote, and “the home run king of three worlds.” He’s about a foot and half tall, but he kicks ass and often saves everybody. Then there’s Taffy the sasquatch, mourning and searching for children she lost while being kept as a pet by giants for 200 years. Spider Rose, a ferisher princess in exile, not to mention a really annoying teenager. Pettypaw, a really irritating wererat, and Grim, the tiny giant, no bigger than Ethan himself. And Rodrigo Buendia, the Cuban expatriate washed out major league baseball player who waits too long to accept his call to heroism. And that’s just the baseball team! You get the idea.
One of the main things I love about this book is the way it treats the idea of story itself. It is explained that “rubes” (i.e. humans) find their way into the Summerlands somewhat frequently, but the world is protected by “greater grammars” that lead the humans into a story. They have an adventure, they probably learn something, and then they go home with a great tale to tell, without ever going very far into the Summerlands at all. Cinquefoil explains that these “greater grammars” are to blame for many of the side adventures they face, which is pretty funny to me. It’s like the book openly admits that they’re side adventures, but doesn’t care.
I also just want to say that I love Coyote. Like many elements of the book, he crosses all mythologies. “Coyote” comes from Native American legends, but he is also called Loki, The Changer, and yes, Satan. As Coyote himself says: “All that Satan business is a bunch of baloney! …okay, so I have pulled a few fast ones…” Coyote wants to destroy the universe because he feels like it. He’s the Changer–he brought death to the world. He also invented baseball. He’s completely erratic and can’t even guess what his own next move will be. Basically, Coyote don’t care. Coyote don’t give a shit.
As the team races to beat Coyote to the Well, they play various teams in the Summerlands and hone their skills. As they become a better baseball team, they also discover new things about themselves. There’s also a ton of myth and magic and shenanigans. And as you can imagine, the fate of the world comes down to one final baseball game.
(There’s also a flying orange car named Skidbladnr that I wish I had more time to talk about.)
-Michael Chabon is both an amazing author and narrator
-Really interesting world, drawing on many mythologies
-I didn’t mention this before: THIS BOOK IS FUNNY AS HELL.
-And sometimes tragic – PERFECT.
-TMC!! And they’re ALL cool, so I wish I had more time to get to know them.
-Besides TMC, there is potentially TMP- too much plot. Sometimes there was so much going on it lost me a little.
I actually read this book once before about ten years ago, before I was old enough to realize that it’s about more than just baseball. I loved it then anyway. And I love it now. I highly recommend the audiobook if you’re looking for a good listen, or the book book if you’re looking for a good read!