Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Trial by Water: Sports Camp by Rich Wallace

On the bus ride into Camp Olympia, eleven-year-old Riley Liston is beginning to feel that he's made a big mistake.

He loves sports, and a two-week camp where he gets to do every sport--from fishing to basketball--had seemed like a good idea last winter. But Riley's heart sinks when he sees that he's going to be the runt of the camp, one of the youngest among a bunch of bigger, hairier, scarier guys, especially the show-off "Fat Barry," ruler of Cabin 3. A dedicated swimmer, Riley even feels the lake losing its appeal when Barry launches into his first campfire story, the "legend" of Big Joe, the resident giant snapper turtle of Lake Surprise.

"That thing had my foot in its mouth last year, I swear!" said Barry Monahan... "I've still got a scar."

"That thing" was Big Joe, the legendary resident of Lake Surprise. Said to be as wide as a wheelbarrow and as fierce as a mountain lion, the snapping turtle had been the subject of all kinds of stories on the three-hour ride from the city. They told of kids who'd lost fingers and toes, and of others who'd barely escaped.

Riley quickly finds out that, like it or not, Cabin 3 is his tribe for the duration, and, as counselor Shawn tells them at the start, kids in the other cabins are simply "your rivals." Everything in the camp is set up around a two-week drive for cabin points in daily rounds of competition--in softball, basketball, canoeing, the camp's own extreme version of water polo, even karaoke.

The older guys--Barry, Hernando, Vinnie--give Riley a hard time after his weak defensive play contributes to his team's loss in their first match-up in basketball, and in the after lights-out bull sessions, Riley fares no better.

"So how many girls have you made out with, Liston?" Barry said with a laugh.

"I don't know," Riley mumbled. He'd been hoping to stay out of the conversation.

"Can't count that high, huh, Riley boy?" Barry laughed again, and everybody else laughed with him.

"Don't worry, twerp, it'll happen one of these years."

"Leave him alone," Tony said. "He can't help it if his hair hasn't sprouted yet."

But Camp Olympia's all-sports program is actually a good fit for Riley's strong point--his endurance, both physical and psychological. Riley plugs along at his worst sports, basketball and softball, screwing up sometimes but occasionally managing to contribute to some wins for his cabin. A solid swim team veteran, Riley's quickness and staying power turn out to be an asset in water polo, and his speed and endurance begin to pile up some points in distance running. His quiet perseverance begins to win him some grudging respect from the older boys, and the rituals of midnight pranking between the cabins draw him into a kind of fellowship even with Barry and his cohorts. Then Cabin 3 canoers have a peculiar bonding experience when they are privy to a rare sighting of the legendary but unfortunately all-too-real Big Joe in mid-lake.

And then there's the big event--the speed swim across the lake and back. Just recovering from an all-nighter in the "Larry" (the latrine) caused by eating a proffered piece of Barry's five-day-old Jersey Chicken, Riley barely manages to qualify, but he doggedly begins to swim extra laps every day, keeping one eye out for Big Joe at all times. And when the date of the big swim race rolls around, it is obvious to Cabin 3 that Riley is their only hope of carrying off the all-sports Big Joe Trophy for the summer.

Veteran sports fiction writer Rich Wallace's recent Sports Camp (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) is fast-moving tale with a likable and believable underdog character who learns to play to his strengths, with the additional theme that each member of a team has something to contribute. Short and easy-going reading, with each chapter's quotes from the Camp Olympia Bulletin updating the reader on current cabin standings, this one is a good choice for reluctant guy readers and for the fans of the sports novels of Dan Gutman, Tim Green, and Mike Lupica.

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