Review by C.J. Bunce
As professional baseball takes us into the playoffs this week, we could have a repeat of last year’s World Series, with the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians again vying for the championship. Just in time, a new Harry Turtledove novel is now in bookstores that will take baseball fans backward in time with a bird’s-eye view of life as a farm team ball player during the Great Depression. The House of Daniel follows a down on his luck “Okie” as he plays a season of semipro baseball on a team based on the real church-sponsored team called The House of David, known for its religious flavor and long-haired players–an early take on the Harlem Globetrotters but without the theatrics. During the Great Depression the team barnstormed the country along with dozens of other teams that sprouted out in every corner of small town America, providing a source of income for players and providing the average American a few hours of respite from a bleak reality, all for a few cents per ticket. Hugo Award winner Turtledove’s account of player Jack Spivey is a fictionalized one, but his knowledge of farm teams and forgotten byways reflects a historic realism that will make you forget this is also a supernatural tale. Turtledove is known for his alternate histories, and this time he throws in a past with a Kim Newman style change-up, with vampires, wizards, werewolves, voodoo, UFOs, and zombies interspersed in what would otherwise be a typical work of historical fiction.
Baseball fanatics will be impressed, but fantasy readers may not find enough here to satisfy. In fact, about 100 pages into the novel only the slightest mention of a fantastical element will remind the reader this isn’t entirely straight fiction. The fantasy elements could easily be excised leaving behind the kind of account that will have you thinking you’ve picked up a lost John Steinbeck novel. Spivey is a semipro baseball player. Everyone everywhere is poor, except for the few with power and influence to control the rest. Spivey is asked to work over a guy by the man who controls him–the price for a bit of protection and relief money, but when Spivey arrives and finds the target of his thuggery is a woman, he tells her to get out of town and he looks for a way out. Fortunately for him, two ball players for the well-known barnstorming team called The House of Daniel literally collide while fielding a pop fly into the outfield, leaving an opening for Spivey to join up. Thus begins a long, really-small-town by really-small-town-travelogue, told first person by Spivey, as the team bus takes him and his team across every bump of every gravel highway, into every diner, into every small field, and bunked at every boarding room between Enid, Oklahoma, and Denver, between Salt Lake City and Idaho Falls, and between Seattle and San Diego. But first Spivey needs to wear a wig and glue on a fake beard until he can grow his own.
Spivey infrequently looks over his shoulder for the mobster’s hitman who could show up any day to claim his pound of flesh. Meanwhile we follow Spivey and get to know him and his Southern Oklahoman accent thanks to Turtledove’s believable dialect forged from the Tom Sawyer school of talkin’. After a few chapters the reader gets the hang of his colloquialisms and from then on it’s hard not to get sucked in. The road and player’s life on it becomes “old hat” for Spivey, and whenever the meandering, wandering from town to town (with the ultimate destination a tournament in Denver) becomes a bit stale, Turtledove inserts his fantasy bits. Like a couple of encounters with Depression era vampires trying to con their way into an invitation to the current boarding house. Or strange lights in the night sky over a small town in New Mexico. Or zombies, who have replaced slave laborers in some parts of the country.
Despite a thriving Negro Baseball League and the odd “colored” player, Spivey’s inner-monologue and conversation exhibit the racism of the day and the all white teams of the league. Spivey’s own character arc in this regard ticks but one notch toward progressive over the course of the book, as his manager brings in a ringer from the deep South, a black player named Carpetbag Booker. Carpetbag Booker is idolized by the players because he’s good enough to play professional baseball. The manager sees to it that he gets to stay with the team in boarding houses and otherwise get equal treatment despite racial prejudices, but Booker would just as soon stay with friends in the black neighborhoods where he is an even bigger hero. The overall impression is that of Jackie Robinson, and the story here has the same feel as Robinson’s early days as told in the film 42, reviewed here previously at borg.com.
Turtledove’s writing is rich and intriguing. His subordinate characters are colorful and engaging. Turtledove plants some serious themes worth thinking about within the veil of a fantasy baseball novel. Here is a book trailer for the novel:
A treat for lovers of baseball and Americana, and of mild interest for fantasy readers, The House of Daniel, previously only available in hardcover, is now available from Tor in a paperback edition. Pick up a copy here at Amazon.