Friday, October 23, 2009

Review of the Prince of Fenway Park by Julianna Baggott

Baggott, Julianna. The Prince of Fenway Park. HarperCollins, 2009.

I read this baseball fantasy at an especially apt time, as the Dodgers crashed and burned for the second year in a row on their way to the World Series. Those who wear Dodger Blue know something about curses…

Still, the Dodgers have nothing on the Boston Red Sox, which as everyone knows suffered a curse that began in 1919 when they sold off Babe Ruth and didn’t end until the 2004 World Series. And how did they shake off that losing streak? Readers of The Prince of Fenway Park will thank one Oscar Egg, a 12-year-old mixed-race child adopted as a baby by two well-meaning but imperfect parents, who soon divorce. As a result, Oscar has always felt a bit out of place.

When his mom abruptly drops Oscar off with his dad so she can be with her boyfriend, Oscar learns why his dad has always seemed so hangdog and sickly and why he has never invited Oscar to his home. It turns out that his dad lives under Fenway Park and, like all its other unhappy denizens, is half-fairy and half-human. And, like the Boston Red Sox, they are laboring under the Curse, which has afflicted the entire Park not just with baseball losses, but with a screaming Banshee, weasels, mice, an alarming Pooka, and assorted other strange creatures. Oscar not only feels immediately at home, but decides to set about breaking the Curse – with help from his dad, his aunties, and Babe Ruth himself.

The mechanics of this fantasy are a bit clunky – Oscar is gifted with the ability to “read signs,” meaning he can decode anything from a song’s hidden message to a weasel’s snapping communication to a mute auntie’s blinking, and there is also a tunnel and key that allow him and his nemesis to go back and forth in time. However, the strange and seedy magical underworld of Fenway Park is enthralling and its doomed denizens, all never failing to wear their Red Sox caps, are fascinating. I was reminded of Tim Powers’ contemporary novels – such as Last Call - featuring magical beings living their marginal and dangerous lives on the seedier edges of Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

The climax, in which the 12-year-old versions of famous ball players in history (Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Pumpsie Green) face off against such disgraced players as Ty Cobbs, Jose Canseco, Eddie Cicotte, and Pete Rose in a ball game that will determine whether or not the Curse is lifted, is sure to be a treat for kids who are familiar with these players and their styles. It’s the scene before it, in which Oscar goes to these kids one by one, asking them to come play ball, that is moving and heartfelt, especially as the author has taken pains to explain why each of Oscar’s team members was marginalized or felt like an outsider during his career. This part goes on a bit too long and some kids may not have the patience for it, but those who don’t skim through it will find plenty of interesting history.

This is an obvious choice for baseball fans and for kids who love Dan Gutman’s “baseball card” time-travel fantasies, but I think the premise – and the appealing jacket art – will attract all kinds of readers. Recommended for kids ages 9 to 12.

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