You might recognize Alan Gratz’s name from a review I did of an earlier book of his; but I’m not the only one who’s reviewed Alan Gratz here. The books in his Horatio Wilkes mystery series crackle with great language; a smart, world-weary, engaging main character; and ripped-from-Shakespeare’s-headlines plots. But before he wrote YA hardboiled detective mysteries based on Hamlet and Macbeth, he wrote a really interesting baseball book called Samurai Shortstop.
Shortstop concerns Toyo, a young man growing up in Japan in 1890, who discovers in baseball a way to link his family’s tradition of bushido to the new industrialization transforming Japanese society. Did you know Japan had baseball before World War II? Before Babe Ruth? Before automobiles? Well Alan Gratz knew, because he knows his baseball history. And it’s that history, that ability to illuminate the oddball corners of America’s most storied sport, that he brings to bear full bore on his new novel, The Brooklyn Nine.
The Brooklyn Nine follows nine generations of the Schneider family, from Felix Schneider, German immigrant and fan of the New York Knickerbockers in 1845, to Snider Flint in 2002, who hunts down the provenance of a mysterious old baseball bat while recovering from a broken leg. Each generation faces problems—some small, some historic—grounded in their specific moment in history. Oh, and each generation has a powerful love of baseball.
I’ve often heard it said that baseball is a writer’s sport, that baseball makes for the best kind of story. Intrinsic to the sport are notions of character, place, conflict that take place at a story’s pace. Games can be diagrammed like sentences and one inning’s close strikeout can foreshadow a late homerun like a gun on the first page of a book signals somebody’s death in chapter seven.
However, Gratz has made the most baseball of baseball books here: nine characters for nine innings, and each character gets three chapters, like the minimum at bats for a team each inning, or three strikes a batter gets before he’s out. And the characters’ situations revolve around baseball—like how Louis Schneider discovers in the middle of the Civil War that he has more in common with the Confederates than he realized. Or how Jimmy Flint’s agony over losing the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles reflects the nation’s agonizing struggle with the changes of civil rights and the cold war.
Readers familiar with his earlier books may initially be struck by the age of Gratz’s main characters—where Samurai Shortstop and the Horatio Wilkes novels follow high schoolers, the Brooklyn nine range from ten to maybe sixteen. But that’s not the whole story. In fact, this is probably Gratz’s most complex novel to date. As I’ve already noted, the structure of the novel is fairly complex. But it’s not just that—each character is given their proper due, whether they triumph in their struggles or not, whether their individual story is one of hope or one of disappointment. I’m convinced that The Brooklyn Nine is an epic, a book of the long now, one that is more interested in looking at stories that only find resolution over generations—the goal of a young man in 1845 may not find completion for a century or more, and no one character, while the hero of their own individual story, can claim to see the big picture.
A couple of notes before I wrap this up and hopefully send you on your way to find this great book. First, Alan’s website has some really interesting bits, including some great background info on the research he did for each section of the book. Second, I think Alan’s a fascinating writer and I’m interviewing him for guyslitwire and hope to have that on the website soon.
Books mentioned in this post:
The novels of Alan Gratz:
The Brooklyn Nine
The Horatio Wilkes mysteries: Something Rotten and Something Wicked