Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Who'll Stop the Rain? Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta

To understand baseball, you have to understand percentages. That's how a guy can go into every game feeling positive. He knows if he plays enough games, eventually he'll have a perfect day at the plate.

That's how I explain the fact that it's been raining for twenty-two years in Moundville. The earth is a big place, and it's been around for a long time. If you think about all the towns in the world and all the years the earth has been around, it was bound to happen somewhere sooner or later. It just happened to be my town and my lifetime. It's percentages.

Roy is a catcher, a pretty good twelve-year-old catcher, and to call the pitches he has to go with the percentages. Of course, knowing the percentages and loving baseball doesn't work out too well in a town where it's rained every day for over two decades, washing away all the grass and topsoil and making baseball impossible inside the city limits. It doesn't help that half the town believes the rain is the result of a curse by a young Sioux shaman in revenge for the settlers' beating the Sinister Bend Indians at the beginning of the century-long series. Still, when Roy comes home from baseball camp in a sunnier city to find a new foster brother, Sturgis Nye, he doesn't realize that there is a game changer afoot which will rearrange all the odds.

Suddenly the rain stops, the kids start to gather on the ruined Moundville diamond, and Roy discovers that the mysterious Sturgis has an arm like a cannon. Claiming that since he's grown up out in the boonies with no way to play the game, Sturgis maintains that his ability must come from his dad, a former major league pitcher now in prison. However he came by his speed, Roy sees him as the power around which he can field a Moundville team and avenge their century of losses to the town of Sinister Bend. When Roy's dad joins in to rebuild the ball field, kids start to show up to play, even two rather cute girls, Shannon, whose tennis prowess contributes to her swing at the plate, and Rita, who can't throw straight but can toss a killer screwball. The hodge-podge team begins to shape up under Roy's able coaching, and it looks as if by Labor Day, they'll be ready to win one for Moundville after a long dry, er, make that wet spell.

Then Roy and Sturgis cross swords over his penchant for hitting batters at will, and Sturgis takes his pitching skills over to the Pirates, the Sinister Bend team in exile. As the big game nears, Roy realizes that he's actually being forced into a replay of the grudge match between his dad and Sturgis' father, a match which just might undo the curse which has turned Moundville into "Mudville."

Tautly written game play and realistic dialog make Scaletta's Mudville (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) an engaging read for baseball fans, while the sensitive probing of family dynamics within Roy's nuclear and extended family gives the novel its depth and feeling. The fantasy aspect--well, it doesn't add much more than a hint of mystery to the plot, but it doesn't put too much of a damper on the game either.

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