The Prince of Fenway Park, by Julianna Baggott (Harper Collins, 2009, middle grade, 322 pp) is much more than a time slip story. But because the element of time travel is central to the resolution of the plot, I am happy to feature it as today's Time Slip Tuesday book.
It is 2004, and the Red Sox are cursed. Ever since they traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees back in 1919, nothing has worked for them.
A 12 year old Red Sox fan named Oscar is pretty sure he is cursed too. Neither of his parents, who adopted him as a baby and who were since divorced, seems to want him anymore, and he can't help but wonder if it is because he isn't white.
When his mom takes off to Baltimore, leaving him with his father (a surprise to both of them), Oscar learns that there are reasons, good ones, why he never spent the night with him before. Turns out, his father lives under Fenway Park (home of the Red Sox), with a strange assortment of Cursed Creatures. These include his three fairy great-aunts, the Weasel Man, Smoker the organ player, and most mysteriously scary of all, the Pooka....
Now that Oscar has joined the Cursed Creatures, there's only one way out for all of them. Somehow, Oscar must break the Curse, unraveling its mystery one clue at a time. But meanwhile, some of the denizens of the under-park are dead set against any tampering with the Curse, and will do just about anything to stop Oscar and his supporters.
The best way to break a baseball curse is through a game of baseball. Oscar must use the magic of Fenway Park to travel back in time, so that he can field a team of baseball greats--not necessarily the greatest athletes, but the ones who had been wronged--"the players with some sorrow to heal, some sorrow that burrowed down into the dirt of Fenway Park." (page 256)
Oscar goes back to when each of these players was just a kid like himself, and invites them back to play the first great game of their lives. These encounters back in past are moving and poignant glimpses into the lives of the boys who would go on to change baseball--like Jackie Robinson, whose mother is trying to support her five kids, Ted Williams, whose mother is too busy helping "the poor" to look after her family, Pumpsie Green, too tired from his day of hard labor to sleep....and Babe Ruth himself, a young orphan working long hours in a tailor's shop.
Facing these kids--the orphaned, the poor, the dark skinned, the immigrants-- are a team of players who embody the worst of the sport, those who will do anything to win. And back in the present, the curse is still in force. The Red Sox have lost the first three games of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees.
The Prince of Fenway Park is two books in one. It's a fantastical quest story, with a lavishly imagined and very engaging alternate world. But it's also the story of the racial injustices that taint the history of baseball, and if sometimes Baggett presents this history in largish chunks, a tad removed from the fantasy story line, that's just fine with me, because it is so darn moving, and powerful, and so important.
I feel like I should confess, however, that there was one part of the book I didn't read all that closely--the play-by-play of the Final Game. I'm not, actually, a baseball fan...
But for the kid who is, who might be a reluctant-ish reader, I bet the entire book would be utterly enthralling. It would be absolutely perfect of the 10 or 11 year-old Red Sox fan who loves Harry Potter. Yankees fans, not so much.
Note: There has recently been some controversy about this book (as described in Baggott's September editorial in the Boston Globe). To quote from the author's note:
"Although The Prince of Fenway Park is a work of fiction, it relies on and intersects with history. The word nigger appears in this novel three times--on pages 177, 257, and 299. In each of these cases, I was relying on facts and real quotes.
"I believe that the word nigger is the most hateful word in the English language. Although it is morally wrong to use this word, censoring it would be an attempt to sanitize the past. I refuse to do so--for the sake of children or any readers, for that matter. When we try to alter history, we cannot truly understand and learn from our mistakes, and we are guilty of diminishing the truly great acts of heroism in the battle against racism."
The Prince of Fenway Park has been nominated for the Cybils, in the Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy category.