Ann's Reviews > Summerland

Summerland by Michael Chabon
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's review
Nov 10, 2011

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bookshelves: novel, young-adult
Read in October, 2007

Summerland was the uber-anticipated children’s novel of 2002. Essentially a 500-page baseball metaphor, it marked Chabon’s first foray into children’s literature, as well as his first novel after winning the Pulitzer in 2000 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Harking back to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classics, Chabon taps 11-year-old Ethan Feld, “the worst ballplayer in the history of Clam Island, Washington,” to be MVP of the most important ballgame ever played in four worlds. He accumulates teammates en route to rescue his Zeppelin-building dad, whom the villain Coyote has taken hostage for his particle-engineering feats. On the hero’s roster are Ethan’s best friends, a motherless tomboy and a half fairy/half geek; two full-blooded fairy beings that seem a cross between Lilliputians and Native Americans; a Sasquatch who suffers acute mother’s guilt; a ravenous ratman; a midget giant; and a Cuban, cigar-smoking designated hitter from the Anaheim Angels.
Hyperion. 492 pages. $22.95

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ****
“There are parallels with Harry Potter. …If Rowling's books are the more powerful and memorable by virtue of better plotting and pacing, Chabon's is the more thoughtful and wide-ranging, as it probes the myths that inform that essence we can never quite identify: What it is to be an American.” John Schulman

San Francisco Chronicle ***3/4
“[T]he power of Chabon's verbal and storytelling power delivers in the clutch.” David Kipen

Washington Post ***1/2
“[T]he engines that drive Summerland are real story engines, and they work hard to deliver: It's a fantasy with a young protagonist that fuses baseball, Native-American tales, Norse myths and shaggy god stories into a tasty, quest-driven stew. … [I]t's a rollicking and fine tale, well told and with moments of real magic, peril, adventure, terror and triumph … .” Neil Gaiman

Entertainment Weekly ***1/2
“By calling it [a kids’ book], Chabon gives himself prosaic license to indulge in open-hearted hokeyness and reflexive nostalgic revelry, but he's also navigating the mainstream of American fiction -- considering the uses of enchantment as seriously as Jonathan Franzen (who niftily riffed on Narnia in ‘The Corrections’) and wondering hard about traditions ‘falling indelibly into the past’ (to use a phrase from the diamond setting of Don DeLillo's ‘Underworld’).” Troy Patterson

Christian Science Monitor ***
“It's wildly inventive, but the core premise that baseball is a metaphor for life is ground as well-trodden as home plate.” Yvonne Zipp

New York Times **
“Like the Potter and ‘Lord of the Rings’ books, ‘Summerland’ constructs as many sub-realms and space-warping complications as it can, and does its best to turn sheer knottiness into an attractive quality. But what's out of whack is the balance between explication and storytelling. When a fantasy tale has to pause too frequently to explain new characters, places, spells, ancestors and obstacles -- as this one does throughout its belabored first half -- then pruning is in order.” Janet Maslin

The Independent **
“[T]here are some moving scenes. … But moments of truth like these fit uneasily into a narrative otherwise so relaxed that it reads like one of those spun-out home-grown stories told with no real intention of ever going into print.” Nicholas Tucker

From a range of reviews on Summerland, the general consensus is that Chabon’s storytelling skills triumph, that the story succeeds as children’s literature for the 12-year-old-and-older set, and that the final half prevails over the lumbering beginning.
In this novel, as in Kavalier & Clay, Chabon pits underdogs against evil incarnate, this time represented by the mythical Coyote prankster, rather than the very real Hitler. And in this tale, rife with fantastic lands, creatures, and magical episodes, the pre-adolescent characters triumph, as well, over their own challenges, including broken homes, racially mixed families, abandonment, and race and gender stereotyping.
With its author’s Pulitzer legacy, did Summerland merit its pre-release hoopla?
In the sense that it provided a new source of study for world mythology buffs, yes. In that it underscored Chabon’s magic with words and ease with American nostalgia, most of the time. That it was the heir-apparent children’s fantasy novel to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Rowling’s Harry Potter series; not so much.
More enthusiastic critics would agree it’s “more of a solid double than a home run, but it's hard not to root for someone who's so willing to swing for the fences” (Christian Science Monitor).

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