Monday, February 27, 2017

2018 Contenders: A Rambler Steals Home, by Carter Higgins

"It is a failing of mine that I persist in bringing logic to movies where it is not wanted."
          ~Roger Ebert, review of Romeo Must Die (2000)

I'd never claim to be even a fraction of the reviewer that Ebert was, but his lament here is one I can empathize with. All the way through A Rambler Steals Home, I found myself asking questions that probably weren't entirely relevant to the story, but that nonetheless kept me from fully engaging with the plot and characters.

Rambler is narrated by Derby Christmas Clark, who lives out of the titular vehicle alongside her brother, Triple, and her father, Garland. Each summer, they return to the town of Ridge Creek, Virginia, and operate a food stand outside of the stadium of the minor-league Ridge Creek Rockskippers. This year, however, some of their Ridge Creek friends are gone, some have had life-changing experiences, and some have secrets that will soon rise to the surface.

I'm a huge baseball fan, and I enjoy attending minor league games. However, I found myself coming back again and again to the question of what kind of team the Rockskippers are. We're told at one point that "players came and went as they got good enough for the big leagues," which makes it sound like this is a minor league affiliate of a team in the majors, although no specific parent team is ever listed. The Rockskippers would have to be a low-level team, however, given that Ridge Creek seems to be a small town indeed. (For what it's worth, the town where I live has 30,000 people in it and still only has a low-A team, one step above the bottom of the organized minor leagues.) But the starting right fielder, Goose Plogger, seems to have played for the team for at least 14 or 15 years; given that he has an 11-year-old daughter born after his marriage to a town local, he's almost certainly in his early to mid-thirties anyway. Even in an independent league, the fringe-iest level of professional ball, it defies belief that a player that age would a) still be on the same team, and b) never have changed teams or advanced a level and still be starting. Maybe, maybe, this would have been possible back in the old pre-1950s Pacific Coast League, but it's simply not a thing that happens now.

Similarly, this appears to be a team that only has one groundskeeper -- a twelve-year-old boy -- and one person selling tickets. Even down at the level of my local single-A team, there are multiple ticket windows, a whole grounds crew, and a team of PR people, sales reps, and management types. I'm just not buying any of the setting here; it's like a Truman Show-level recreation of the idea of a small-town baseball team, rather than anything based in reality.

I might have spent less time thinking about this if I had had anything else to concentrate on. But the plot is an accumulation of off-the-shelf parts from The Higher Power of Lucky, and Missing May, and any number of other books about missing mothers, sorrowing fathers and daughters, and small-town secrets about loss and acceptance. I couldn't find anything here that I hadn't read elsewhere, and so the weirdness of the setting ended up occupying most of my attention.

This is Carter Higgins' first book, and I wouldn't dismiss her as an author based on it. But it's highly flawed, and I wouldn't consider it a serious Newbery contender.

Publication on February 28, 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt