Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Bonkers! Out in Left Field by Don Lemna

I was off in the right direction as soon as I heard the crack of the bat. This one was all mine.

The ball was on the way down and I was running flat out when Axel's shoulder brushed against me. "I got it!" he cried.

"It's mine!" I yelled.

But unfortunately when I bumped him away, for just a moment I took my eyes off the ball. The ball then completed its trajectory, smacking into my forehead. Darkness fell.

... As soon as my brain began to function, a ghastly beast lurking somewhere in the depths of my memory stood up on its hideous hind legs and staggered forward to confront me.

"I missed it!" I cried out. I had missed the catch that would have brought victory to our school. I had missed the catch that would have covered me with glory. Instead, I had covered myself with shame.

Belittled by Axel, who named him "Donald Duck" and hogs the outfield, Don had hoped to redeem himself in the big game, only to become the only boy in the history of Stanton School to have suffered a concussion caused by a fly ball.

Worried that his despair will impede his recovery, Don's parents try to raise his spirits by taking him to a movie in town--a rare treat in 1947. Don chooses the movie Robin Hood, and his spirits begin to rise. He will become a lethal archer and dazzle all the kids with his skill. But archery sets cost $8.99, an impossible sum on his cash-strapped farm, and Don sees that his only hope of redeeming his reputation is to collect enough beer bottles from the field of their hard-drinking neighbor Charlie to buy his own set. At two cents a bottle, Don figures that with the Schneider girls' red wagon he can earn the bow and arrow by hauling only 75 cases of 12 bottles each back home.

As I headed toward the road, I tried to figure out how many trips up and down the hill I'd have to make... at two cases per trip. By the time I reached the edge of the hill, I'd discovered that I was not able to do arithmetic in my head. It seemed to me that there would be half a trip left over. How could I make half a trip?

Don solves his math problem by charming Charlie into driving the needed bottles over in his truck. Even though he earns the archery set, it turns out not to be the panacea for his social problems he'd planned, and when his little brother cajoles him into a bow-and-arrow lesson, Pat manages to shoot the arrow over the barn and right into the rear end of the family's bull Rodger. When Rodger reacts by taking out the chicken coop, the archery gambit goes into hiatus.

No problem. When his mom refuses to do the job, Don determines to salvage his honor by offering to drive his father's truck at harvest time, a task which will get him out of school along with those admired eighth grade boys, but after some impressive initial lessons, Don manages to back the truck into the auger, and his truck-driving career goes on hold as well.

Undeterred, Don pins his social redemption hopes on hockey season, but when the pond finally freezes over, he discovers his old skates are too small and his parents insist that he has to wait until Christmas for new ones. Mom offers her old white figure skates, the wearing of which only results in more humiliation at the hands of Axel and his buddies, and when Don carefully pens a shamelessly begging letter to his rich aunt asking for skates, she misreads his overly fancy writing as a request for skiis, which Don manages to shatter in his first trip down Suicide Hill.

Don can't catch a break as his sixth-grade year marches on through one disaster after another, with the jubilant Axel making the most of every one of them. Don feels that inevitably he's going to have to fight the larger and stronger Axel in defense of his honor, but when that moment comes, the outcome is not at all what Donald expects.

Don Lemna's second semi-autobiographical tale of his Montana boyhood, Out in Left Field (Holiday House, 2012) is a hilarious sequel which compares well with Robert Peck's Soup series and is firmly in the American humor tradition of Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Dover Thrift Editions) and Tarkington's Penrod, Although the book's equally funny predecessor, When the Sergeant Came Marching Home, (see my review here) sets the scene in post-war rural America, "before the electricity" came to farm country, this one easily stands on its own. Perfect for family or classroom read alouds, Out in Left Field is a laugh-out-loud humorous bit of mid-century American historical fiction, a very different time when boys competed for status outdoors rather than at video games, but in which human nature remains totally recogizable.

"... Humor runs rampant throughout this story," says School Library Journal.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home