CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 13. . . .November 25, 2011
The Boy from Left Field.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2012.
209 pp., pbk., $12.99.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Huai-Yang Lim.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Hawk jogged through the Riverdale streets, eager to get to the practice field. The sky had turned overcast, a sharp wind blew bits of paper and cast-off coffee cups along the sidewalk. Hawk shivered and kept on moving. Images from the day at school flashed through his mind--they weren't all bad, but already there was almost too much pressure on him. The other kids seemed to take everything in stride, but he was different. He was the one who'd been living first in a taxi, and now a restaurant, the kid who'd been held up and robbed by the Rippers gang, the kid who had latched on to the dream of finding a magic baseball that the great Babe Ruth had once hit for a home run. He was the Grade Four kid who had to take on a school project halfway through the year and try to match the work of the brightest kids in the city.
For an instant he felt weighed down, helpless, but minutes later, when he was at his gloomiest, his most doubtful, he suddenly remembered something his father had told him a couple of years before. . . .
. . . Hawk had forgotten his dad's exact words, but he remembered the message: find the power in yourself, believe in it! Be a warrior! And now, as he walked along these very ordinary streets in Riverdale, suddenly, under a cold, dull sky everything changed. (111-112)
In the past two decades, an increasing body of literature for children and young adults has dealt with the contemporary realities of living as a young adult from an ethnic minority or First Nations background. This can be seen in the works of Canadian authors such as Rachna Gilmore, Paul Yee, and Richard Van Camp. However, the body of literature is still comparatively small for its portrayal of protagonists from mixed ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Similar to people who are from a specific ethnic minority or First Nations background, people from mixed backgrounds may certainly experience similar uncertainties and discomfort about where they fit in and how they define their identity, but they may carry the additional burden of feeling marginalised or excluded from both backgrounds. With their mixed background, they may feel in limbo due to their lack of comfort in, or inability to, identify fully with one particular background or the other. As a result, these individuals may experience additional uncertainty with respect to their self-identities, but, at the same time, their circumstances can offer a unique opportunity for defining empowering identities that are unencumbered by specific cultural contexts' predefined boundaries and expectations.
Tom Henighan's The Boy From Left Field contributes to this body of literature and will be a good addition both to public and school libraries that are looking for stories with contemporary representations of protagonists from mixed backgrounds. Indeed, Henighan's novel offers something for every reader due to its incorporation of plot-driven and character-driven elements. The age group to which it is targeted appears to be nine and up, although perhaps older readers may be less inclined to read about a protagonist who is only 10-years-old. Nevertheless, the novel can likely be enjoyed by readers up to twelve years of age. For the most part, the novel's language will not pose a significant challenge for younger readers, but some of its cultural references may be better appreciated by readers in the upper end of the nine to twelve age bracket.
Henighan's novel focuses on a half-Aboriginal protagonist named Hawk who lives in economically disadvantaged circumstances. Around this setting, Henighan weaves a mystery plot surrounding Babe Ruth's missing baseball along with the everyday experiences of living as a young adult and as a minority in a gritty urban setting. Many other novels that deal with protagonists from non-European cultural backgrounds may focus on the protagonist's cultural background and struggles arising out of it as the basis for the narrative's progression. In contrast, Henighan’s novel differs in its focus. Hawk's Aboriginal background does affect his daily experiences and self-perceptions in relation to his classmates and friends, but not in a persistent or prominent manner. The ways in which these struggles manifest themselves are inconsistent, subtle, and unexpected. Henighan's novel can be seen as a story that is about a protagonist who happens to be half-Aboriginal, rather than as a story that is about a half-Aboriginal protagonist. This is not to discount the significance and impact of Hawk's Aboriginal background on his life, but rather that Hawk's background is but one aspect that shapes his experiences, along with his economically disadvantaged circumstances, problems in class, and his dealings with bullies and a street gang known as the Rippers.
Whether through personal experience or people whom they know, readers will be able to identify with Henighan's portrayal of Hawk. His experiences with friends, leisure activities, and school are all things that children growing up deal with, regardless of the specific geographical context in which they grow up. Besides the novel's focus on Hawk's daily life in the urban city, school, and home, two mysteries drive the novel's narrative and add a more action-oriented element that will appeal to readers who enjoy plot-driven stories. The first mystery revolves around Hawk's investigations surrounding his classmate Elroy and his connection with the street gang known as the Rippers who had stolen Elroy's baseball glove. However, the boys' investigation unexpectedly exposes something shadier beyond the scope of their immediate neighbourhood. As for the second mystery, this involves Hawk's and Elroy's baseball coach Mr. Rizzoto and his search for the missing baseball that Babe Ruth hit in 1914 for his first professional home run, a ball which Mr. Rizzoto believes may still exist. Although these two narrative threads initially develop independently of each other, they eventually link in an unexpected manner that will satisfy readers. By Henighan's weaving plot-driven and character-driven elements in his novel, the story will appeal to all readers on some level.
The uniqueness of Hawk's experiences, as a result of being a person of mixed heritage, may be unfamiliar to some readers, but Henighan effectively depicts these experiences in a non-reductive manner that will enable all readers to identify with and better understand them. For example, during the story, Hawk reconnects with his culture through his father, but this is portrayed in a non-reductive manner for Hawk can equally enjoy learning about animal's names in his native language as well as enjoy the battle scenes in the movie Ivanhoe. Indeed, this effectively reflects how Hawk's identity is shaped by his Aboriginal heritage as well as by the Westernized cultural context in which he lives. Hawk's reconnecting with his Aboriginal heritage does not necessarily have to occur in a mutually exclusive manner from other cultural influences. Instead, these cultural influences can coexist with each other, as shown by Hawk's acceptance of Aboriginal and Western culture in his life.
The title, The Boy From Left Field, can be interpreted literally as a reference to Hawk's involvement with his community's baseball team, but it also signifies Hawk's feelings of uncertainty among his family, peers, and community. In other words, he feels like he is out in "left field," detached and separate from people around him. Living out of a taxi, finding class uninspiring, and feeling a lack of rootedness due to his and his mother's living circumstances and frequent moves, Hawk feels like he does not fit in. However, Hawk's placement into a special class for gifted children represents an important moment in his ability to fit in among peers. Even though he experiences cultural prejudice and bullying from Charles, another student who also bullies other kids, Hawk's placement in that class allows him to gain self-confidence, associate with other kids who are more accepting of him, and reconnect with the Aboriginal part of his background Similarly, the area in which he lives signifies a culturally and economically diverse community of people who are willing to help each other, as seen by both the adults and Hawk's peers who help him to investigate Elroy and the Rippers.
In books that focus on protagonists who are marginalised in their community due to discrimination, prejudice, and other circumstances, it can be easy to fall into a proselytizing or didactic mode of narration whereby the story's narrator or a character functions as a mouthpiece for comments about injustices and criticisms or, alternatively, for recommendations about how certain wrongs can be righted or addressed. For the most part, Henighan's novel successfully avoids this as the author portrays the consequences of being half-Aboriginal as well as poor through Hawk's experiences without expounding judgements about him or the circumstances in which he experiences discrimination and prejudice. However, there is one particular moment late in the novel where Hawk's father gives a one-and-a-half page monologue that almost sounds like a summing up of the narrative thus far and an exposition of how fortunate they all are to be living in today's circumstances rather than the "glory days" associated with Babe Ruth's time. Up to this point, the people in Henighan's novel have behaved in a realistic manner that is in keeping with their character. However, the father's monologue seems out of keeping with the rest of the story and interrupts the narrative flow. Some readers may feel that they are listening to a didactic explication about the state of the world, the lessons that can be learned from Canada's troubled past, and the ways in which one can contribute to a better society.
The novel's resolution also seems to fall short due to its lack of explanation about Hawk's mother and her change of attitude. For example, Hawk's mother insisted earlier in the story that he would move with her to Ottawa, but it later appears that she is accepting Hawk's desire to stay in Toronto instead. Similarly, Henighan develops the mutual dislike that exists between Hawk's parents throughout the novel, but they then appear to have resolved the issues between them. In both cases, readers are not given a clear explanation about how either of these situations developed in that manner.
A question that may come up is whether it is realistic for a 10-year-old kid to be involved in the adventures in which Hawk becomes involved. For example, is it realistic for Hawk and his friends to tail a street gang comprised of teens, despite the dangers and the physical harm that they may experience? In particular, Hawk and his friends learn about the presence of Chinese triad activity in Toronto and its connection with the Rippers. However, gangs and black market activity do exist in urban centres where impressionable and vulnerable individuals, such as children, can get targeted. As for whether it is realistic for Hawk and his friends to act in the way that they have done, it is not improbable for kids to want to deal with things on their own terms rather than to have adults do so for them.
Readers do not necessarily need to have an intimate understanding about First Nations history to appreciate the cultural references, since the novel provides sufficient context for readers to understand them. However, this understanding would be useful for readers to get a better grasp of situations, such as when Hawk's father comments about his mother, "She doesn't like our fun . . . but she doesn't dare say anything. Probably thinks I'll put on war paint and shoot burning arrows at her porch if she does" (80). Knowledge about Aboriginal stereotypes will help readers to understand his father's implicit criticism of how other people view First Nations people in a reductive and simplistic manner.
The Boy From Left Field is both an entertaining and educational story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. It falls short in its execution of certain plot elements, but, on the whole, readers will be satisfied with the interesting and inspiring story about a half-Aboriginal protagonist who forms a positive self-identity, develops his self-confidence, and gains acceptance and belonging within his community through his adventures and daily experiences.
More information about Tom Henighan is available on his official website at tomhenighanjournal.wordpress.com.
Huai-Yang Lim has completed a degree in Library and Information Studies and currently works as a research specialist in Edmonton, AB. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children's literature in his spare time.
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