I recently learned that there’ll be another baseball book born on the same day as mine in the Knopf nursery: The Girl Who Threw Butterflies, by Mick Cochrane*, a fellow Minnesotan. There other passing coincidences between the books: single-parent families, a budding romance between a girl with a trick pitch and an amicable boy catcher, car accidents, kitchen disasters, even a little rain. The tone is really different, though, and after a while I got stopped looking for correspondences like one of those crazed coincidentologists who pores over the details of the Kennedy assassination and the Lincoln assassination.
I’d been waiting for a new novel by Cochrane since the early 2000s, when I read Sport. Sport is officially a “grown-up” book, but it’s about a kid, a boy named Harlan growing up in the 1960s in the working class suburbs of St. Paul. He plays baseball, listens to Twins games, and just tries to deal with a sick mother and deadbeat dad. It’s a wonderful book, a personal favorite, and one I recommend a lot to my fellow Twins fans. I figure older fans, especially, get teary eyed not just by Harlan’s story, but by memories of the old Met stadium, the politically incorrect but mostly harmless Indian-themed hotel that used to sit right by the old stadium, and the old-time Twins greats Harlan idolizes, like Harmon “Killer” Killibrew and Dean Chance. I think Sport was the first book I leant to my future wife when we met; I thought she’d like it since she grew up in the same blue-collar St. Paul suburban fringe as its hero. My (future) wife loved it and bought a copy for her parents. When I went to New York I brought a copy for my agent, since she’s specialized in Twins fans as clients (well, she has me and at least one other, a now-retired Twins blogger who attained local celebrity and now writes a children’s fantasy series).
So I was happy and a little freaked out to see his forthcoming book in the Random House catalog, a few pages from Mudville, with the same release date and everything. I dropped a hint-laden email to my editor, and she promptly sent me a copy of Butterflies and Mick a copy of Mudville. I’ve also traded a few emails with Mick. I learned that he’s not just a fellow Knopf author, Twin Citian** and baseball fan (and still follows the Twins from afar), but a fellow Gopher***, and a pretty nice guy.
Butterflies has some similarities to Sport, with a young hero who loves baseball and has serious trouble at home. Molly Williams is an otherwise unspectacular athlete with a remarkable trick pitch that helps land her a spot on a baseball team of mostly boys (I think the coach also admires her maturity and deep appreciation of the sport). The response by some of the boys is abusive, at first, but it might not be sexism as knee-jerk resentment of an in-crowd for an interloper. I think any new kid on the team, especially one who makes them look bad, would suffer the same shunning and hazing before winning their acceptance. Of course, since she is a girl, the abuse takes the form of sexism: crude remarks, locker vandalism, etc.
This is only part of the story. Molly’s father has died in a car accident; her mother is grieving and hard to connect with. Baseball is Molly’s way of reconnecting with memories of her dad and getting out of the house. She forges an alliance with the catcher, a boy named Lonnie who learns to handle her knuckleball pitches, draws beautifully, and is a good listener. He falls short of being an ideal friend, but nobody’s perfect.
I was glad that Cochrane didn’t seem to be writing down for a younger audience in his debut for young readers. The biggest difference between Sport and Butterflies is more one of tone than style. Harlan, the hero of Sport, exudes goodness, but seems helpless as life falls apart around him. Baseball is his only escape. Molly is sad, but doesn’t seem quite so much at sea. Baseball isn’t an escape, but a way to attach herself to something: her father, her teammates, the game itself. It conclusion is more unambiguously uplifting. Maybe that’s why Sport is categorized as adult fiction: books for young people tend not to be completely devastating. There’s plenty of opportunity for that when kids start reading YA. Heh.
Mick and I are in the most preliminary of talks to coordinate some events around the Twin Cities, which I’ll obviously post more about as they develop. It’s really been an unexpected and pleasant twist of fate to find an author I admire is suddenly a friend.
* Not to be confused with the famous baseball player by the same name, who accomplished the rarest feat of the deadball era: he got along with Ty Cobb.
** Now relocated to Buffalo, the setting of Butterflies; I’m sure Mick was smiling ironically when he had the heroine refer to his new hometown as “a city of snow and Super Bowl losers.”
*** My favorite baseball novelist is yet another Gopher.