The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Image
Big Picture Image
Ronald Himler, 1998.
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Choosing Up Sides by John H. Ritter; illus. by Ron Himler. Philomel Books, 1998. 176p
ISBN 0-399-23185-4  $15.99   Gr. 5-9

Often has the Big Picture gleefully reveled in a particularly fine werewolf or vampire tale or highlighted a fetchingly illustrated monster, demon, or creature that goes bump in the night. So indulge us now as, for the second consecutive issue, we step u p to bat on the side of the angels, this time with a novel that pits fire and brimstone Fundamentalism against a rival religion-Baseball-and treats both with cathartic understanding.

Newcomer Luke Bledsoe has barely had time to learn the geographic and social lay of the land in Crown Falls, Ohio, when he is confronted by temptation in the shape of the mystifying and forbidden game of baseball. The Crown Falls team claimed the 1920 c ounty championship and this year hopes to take the 1921 state finals; with the help of this new kid, whose mighty southpaw can hurl a mayapple with deadly accuracy or return a stray ball from 350 feet, victory is in the bag. But Luke's Baptist congregati on considers all sport to be sinful frivolity, and, as his preacher father warns, "Among the left-handers we find the heathen, the lunatic, the criminal-minded. The left side has always been the side of Satan."

Classmate "Skinny" Lappman, a talented hitter with a reasonable shot at the pros, argues convincingly that Luke's talent is God-given and its waste the greater sin. Maternal Uncle Micah, a sports reporter whom Preacher Bledsoe regards as an incorrigible bon vivant, learns of his nephew's talent and takes him to a exhibition game to see the great Babe Ruth, pointing out with no great subtlety that this left-hander's talent was being put to the service of rebuilding a burned-out orphanage. Moreo ver, the approbation of pretty, outspoken baseball fanatic Annabeth Quinn is nearly incentive enough to lure Luke onto the diamond. A long habit of obedience, deep respect for his father's beliefs, and more than a little fear of his father's violent temp er, however, make Luke a hard sell. He is also aware that baseball's attraction is not entirely benign: "Right quick, I could see how tempting baseball could be, the frenzy it could stir, and the Devil-like self-importance it could give a man who had a talent for the game." Luke does in time decide to follow the course of his own nature and play ball, but his determination incurs his father's vicious wrath (the preacher breaks his son's left arm in a desperate effort to save his soul) and inadvertently results in his father's death.

The complexity of Luke's relationship with his father takes Ritter's plot well beyond the parameters of Kate Seago's Matthew Unstrung (BCCB 3/98), which shares a similar boy-defies-preacher-father plotline. A Bible-thumping tyrant Ezekiel Bled soe may be, but Ritter makes it clear that his love for his son is genuine. Jealousy of Luke's bond with Uncle Micah impels Bledsoe to overcome his fear of water and learn how to fish with his boy. In an unguarded moment, he gently touches Luke's should er with his own left hand, an indication that he has suffered firsthand the self-denial he prescribes for his son. Luke is sensitive to and appreciative of his father's tentative expressions of affection and understands-perhaps more clearly than many rea ders will-that his father's meanness is prompted by concern for his good: "I did not hate him his harshness. It was only his way."

Ritter's debut tale of epiphany and apocalypse is appropriately played out on a dense turf of religious reference and Biblical allusion. It's no coincidence that characters named for prophets Ezekiel and Micah urge upon Luke their messages of conversion of heart; nor that Preacher Bledsoe's first sermon to his new congregation is based on Jesus' temptation on the mountaintop, while Luke ponders his life's path on a hilltop overlooking the ball field. The preacher's chosen hymn for the uplift of sinners is "Throw Out the Lifeline"; in a devilishly drawn irony, Bledsoe drowns in the Ohio River (into which he had tripped in a rage) because Luke is unable to throw him a rope with his broken left arm.

Continually leavening the sober elements of this morality tale, however, is the pure joy of baseball and, at least in Luke's case, its redemptive power. Readers rediscover the game through the innocent eyes of a rookie player who is thrilled by the thun derous crack of the bat, delighted by the happiness of the spectators, and above all, amazed at his own pitching ability: "Skinny swung at my first throw as soon as he saw it. His whole body spun around like a long-shafted well auger drilling into the g round for water. But he come up dry." Certainly all readers will rejoice that a freer life upriver with Uncle Micah will allow Luke to exercise his talent, but the most perspicacious will recognize that it's the legacy of conscience from his harsh and misguided father that will assure he plays with integrity.

-- Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Big Picture Image
June's Bulletin cover illustration
by Ron Himler from
Choosing Up Sides,
Copyright 1998. Used by
permission of Philomel Books.



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