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Summerland

By Philip Reeve


I have a new FLA, or Favourite Living Author!*  Michael Chabon is the author of The Wonder Boys, a very funny academic farce which is also one of the best books about the business of writing novels that I’ve ever read (and adapted pretty well into a Michael Douglas movie).  He also wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a moving and hugely readable story about the creation of a 1930s comic-book superhero, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an extraordinary, unmissable, iced-noir detective thriller set in a Jewish state in Alaska - a state which, in the real world, was proposed in the 1930s but never actually existed.  His swashbuckling historical fantasy Gentlemen of the Road comes wrapped in reviews comparing it to Melville, though it seemed to me to be a loving tribute to Fritz Leiber’s tales of Lankhmar.  And his novella The Final Solution seems to spin off from the uncomfortable way that the phrase ‘the Final Solution’, despite its awful historical weight, sounds rather like the title of a Sherlock Holmes story...
 All these books tell gripping tales, and tell them in prose dense with wild ideas, sharp dialogue and beautiful description.  None of them, I imagine, would be suited to readers much younger than 16.   But happily Mr Chabon has also written a novel for younger readers which should appeal to any child who enjoyed His Dark Materials or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.  
Summerland, published back in 2002, is an American fantasy in the tradition of Ray Bradbury and L Frank Baum.  It starts off in the present day on a small island in Puget Sound, but quickly takes its young heroes, Ethan and Jennifer T, on a breakneck journey into three other worlds, all of which are under threat from a surprisingly charming and likeable villain called Coyote.  This fantasy universe is woven from a mixture of Norse and Native American mythology (which seem to go together rather well) and it has a simple logic which makes it feel instantly right.  There are fairies (here called Ferishers), Bigfoots (or do I mean Bigfeet?) and a pleasingly wild and weird array of demons, were-folk, dim-witted giants and oracular clams.  There’s technology as well as magic, though; Ethan’s father is building a prototype airship, and Coyote’s army of goblins and werewolves ploughs its way across the worlds aboard a fleet of armoured cars and steam-powered sledges.  
There’s also quite a lot of baseball, or ‘rounders’ as we call it in this country, which is a bit of a drawback for the British reader.  What is it with American writers and baseball, I wonder?  I’ve always believed that team sports are the opposite of novels; writing fiction is a solitary expression of individuality, while sport submerges the individual in a collective and binds them with all kinds of silly rules.  But American novelists, from J.D Salinger to John Irving, from Don DeLillo to Dennis Lehane, keep coming back to the image of the pitcher’s mound, the home run, the Catcher in the bleedin’ Rye.  In Summerland, the game of baseball is one of the things that link all the worlds, and the final conflict which determines their fate will be played out not on a battlefield but on a baseball diamond.  Apparently a game of baseball is really ‘a great, slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer’s day’.  
Well that sounds nice, and if I thought for a fraction of a second that it was true I might take the trouble to actually look up the rules of baseball, so that I’d know precisely what was going on during the various matches which occur in Summerland.  But in the end I doubt it really matters, any more than not understanding the rules of Quidditch matter when you're reading Harry Potter.  All you really need to know is who’s on each team, and who wins or loses.  And the ultimate winners in Summerland are its young readers; they are taken on a splendid trek through the imagination of a great writer, who doesn’t flinch from showing us the sadnesses and disappointments of life, but is still able to end his story with a positive cascade of happy endings.

(*He’s not quite at the top of my chart; that position is reserved in perpetuity for Geraldine McCaughrean, Head Girl of modern children's fiction.  But he’s currently number two.)

3 comments:

Adrian said...

I loved Summerland - it's a brilliant piece of storytelling, and I'm impressed that Chabon can write as well for children as he can for adults. Thanks to him, Spiderman 2 also ranks as one of the best superhero movies made.

Alex said...

I've got the Yiddish Policeman's Union but I'm not blown away by it. However, I loved Wonderboys the film so I will check out the book. Didn' know it was written by him.

ian said...

Wonderboys and Kavalier & Klay are both masterworks, I am so glad you like them too. The Wonderboys film is a knockout, great acting turn from the ever wonderful Robert Downey jr and all the others, the Marilyn Monroe jacket theme is beautifully handled too; five stars.

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