CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 22 . . . . June 22, 2007
Although baseball is one of the greatest of all games, it is often criticized for its supposedly slow pace. In literary circles, however, this slow pace—which allows time for deep thought and careful reflection—has sometimes been credited for the quality of writing to emerge from and about the game. Nancy L. M. Russell’s baseball novel, So Long, Jackie Robinson, emerges from the same tradition of quality baseball writing, and, unlike the game itself, the book moves along at a fast pace. One might even say that it scurries along like Jackie Robinson stealing a base.
I always enjoy a page-turner—a novel with short chapters filled with the type of action that keeps the story moving along quickly. Russell’s novel does that. I found it difficult to put down and read the 223-page novel in a couple of sittings.
Russell writes of the spring and summer of 1946. Jackie Robinson has been recruited to play baseball for the Montreal Royals. With an eye toward his eventual rise to playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the recruitment of Robinson is billed as the “Great Experiment.” Robinson has been signed as the first African-American man to have a chance of playing baseball in the Majors. As Russell portrays so well though, not everyone embraces the “Great Experiment.”
Despite the title, Robinson, himself, serves primarily as a backdrop for the story. The book’s protagonist is 12-year-old Matthew Parker. Like Robinson, Matthew is a new arrival in Montreal. He and his mother and stepfather have moved from Pembroke, ON. Matthew speaks little French, and, as such, he struggles to fit in to his new surrounds. One of the things that Matthew misses most is his old baseball team. For Matthew, baseball “meant summer and friendship and home.” Without the game, Matthew feels lost.
By chance, soon after his arrival in Montreal, Matthew stumbles across the Delorimier Downs baseball stadium. Matthew is fortunate enough to secure for himself a job walking the terraces, selling snacks to hungry fans. Other misfits struggling to find their own niche soon surround him: René, who has a Mohawk father; Guy, who struggles with English; Tyrone, who is African-American; and Dewy Barton, the young reporter hoping to carve out a career in the competitive world of sports journalism. Amidst turmoil and strife, Matthew wonders at the nature of man. “Why [is] everything so complicated? Indian people don’t like white people. White people call Indian people names. White people don’t like black people. The French don’t like the English. It all [makes] his head hurt.” With all of these complications and tensions at the forefront of the novel, the shadow of the Jackie Robinson “experiment” looms large in the background. It is a clever way to tell a story, and, in a powerful, indirect way, it helps the reader to develop a greater understanding of the enormity of the challenges faced by Robinson as he endured racism and hatred.
It should be noted that, given the book is set in the 1940s, some of the terminology used by the book characters to refer to Jackie Robinson and other African-Americans is unacceptable by the standards that apply today. Russell carefully and considerately explains this fact in her author’s note at the beginning of the book. She even notes that the agents of change to standards of decency and respect were people like Jackie Robinson. Whilst racist terms may be unpalatable for some readers, the use of such terms does add an extra layer of authenticity to the writing and the historical setting. I applaud Russell’s willingness to be true to that setting.
While there is much to like about the novel, just like Jackie Robinson, this book does occasionally swing and miss. I was somewhat distracted by what I took to be Canadian flag-waving in much of the novel. I concede, however, that this was counterbalanced in chapter fourteen where due recognition is given that racism also existed (and exists) in Canada. I also found the chapter thirteen resolution to René’s problem of being bullied to be too simplistic, and I do not think that a boy in René’s position would think that the affair would be ended so simply. Indeed, I believe that a boy in such a position would more likely have feared that he had stirred the hornets’ nest and made things worse for himself. My biggest problem, however, was the chapter nine portrayal of Coach Riley, who is Matthew’s baseball coach in Pembroke. I thought the portrayal was far too simplistic and one-dimensional. I think the character of Coach Riley is poorly constructed and Russell has used him for the sole convenience of having such an undesirable to portray as the novel’s racist.
Given that So Long, Jackie Robinson has a publication date of 2007, I would have liked to have seen recognition of the fact that the book’s publication coincides with some of the 60th anniversary events and tributes that this year mark 60 years since Robinson’s Major League debut. Indeed, an afterword and timeline detailing Robinson remarkable career would also have been a good addition.
Despite these occasional misses, So Long, Jackie Robinson is an enjoyable and educational read. There is much to learn here about baseball and social history. There is also much to like that is quality, engaging story telling.
I primarily recommend this book to baseball-loving upper-elementary and middle school readers looking for a book that moves along with short chapters and fast-paced, easy-to-read writing. Those with an interest in social history will also enjoy a powerful, and often disturbing, story well told.
Gregory Bryan is a member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.