- Title: Stealing Home
- Author: Allison Pittman
- Series: The Baseball Novels, Book 1
- Genre(s): Historical, Inspirational
- Publisher: Multnomah Books, April 2009
- Source: Amazon ($9.99 ebook)
- Length: 352 pages
- Trope(s): Celebrity & Commoner(s), Unrequited/Reunited, Beta Hero(es), Plot Moppet (but in a good way),
- Quick blurb: A staid and “dry” small town in Missouri is turned upside down when a newly-sober ballplayer arrives to continue his recovery.
- Quick review: The Music Man + The Natural + Field of Dreams + Places in the Heart = BIG FAT WIN.
- Grade: A+
“Don’t worry. This is baseball. There’s always a second chance.”
Read With Me Vicariously: Status Updates
11/18/12 – 25%:
Shut up and quit bothering me, I’m reading a REALLY GOOD BOOK.
11/18/12 – 50%:
I love this book soooooo much. If this tanks in the second half like my last three books, I’m going to be upset. VERY upset.
11/19/12 – 75%:
Dear God — and I mean that in both the holy and blasphemous connotations — I love this book.
11/19/12 – 90%:
Never mind, I HATE this book.
11/19/12 – 100%:
I am going to need several days to recover from this one, and the full review is going to be a completely incoherent mess of stupid.
Let the mess of incoherent stupidity commence. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
This is also very long, so go ahead and make a trip to the kitchen for Diet Coke and cookies before we get started. Or communion wafers and wine. Whatever floats your boat.
Picksville, Missouri – March 1905:
Dave was sending her a man. And he was coming on the two-o’clock train.
Dave Voyant is our heroine Ellie Jane’s older brother. He’s a Chicago sportswriter who somehow got himself involved in getting Duke Dennison, the league’s most die-hard drunk, dried out enough to return to the Cubs’ starting lineup.
No saloon. Just like Voyant told the doctor. Some kind of small town ordinance. Welcome to Picksville. Doctor’s orders. For at least thirty days.
When Duke steps off the train, he makes quite an impression on his welcoming committee, especially Morris Bennett, an ambitious “Negro errand boy” enlisted by Ellie Jane to carry the royal baggage:
Now I know a rich white man when I see one. But this guy — he is almost pretty. He’s wearin this suit the color of molasses cake and one of those dandy hats and more jewels than I’ve ever seen any man wear — diamond rings on each hand, gold watch, pearl tie clip and cuff-buttons.
When the big-league city slicker turns his charm on Ellie Jane, the exchange is almost too much for our hero Ned, who’s watching from across the platform:
Ned cringed at Ellie Jane’s girlish reaction, bringing her other hand up to capture what must be a lovely giggle while allowing herself to languish in this forward embrace.
If you were expecting the Duke the Magnificent Manly-Man to be the hero of this story, you might be disappointed – but don’t be, because Ned has “hero material” written all over him. Trust me.
And yes, this is going to be one of those reviews that’s one quote and excerpt after another. Suck it up and keep reading. You’ll thank me later.
You might have noticed the reference to The Music Man in the “quick review” above. Picksville, Missouri, is an alternate universe version of River City, Iowa, and Duke Dennison is our very reluctant, but equally disruptive, Prof. Harold Hill.
Of course, that means our heroine is Marian the Librarian — but instead of shushing people in the stacks, lonely Ellie Jane is trapped in a train station ticket booth.
If she were to run into any of these same people in the town square, while running errands in the Picksville shops, they might walk right past her or make a quick detour into the butcher’s shop. But here, if they wanted her to slide that ticket through the little archway cut into the glass, they’d have to engage in a bit of conversation.
While the residents of Picksville aren’t inclined toward idle chatter or bursting into song, they are just as nosy and desperate for new entertainment as their northern counterparts. No booze, no billiard parlor – not even a chance of Trouble with a Capital T.
Until Duke turns a vacant lot into a baseball field.
The normally terse transactions through the dome-shaped hole in her ticket booth window blossomed into questions about the field — when would it be completed? Who would play there? Was Mr. Dennison planning to bring the entire team to town?
And that’s where the Field of Dreams part of the mash-up comes in: “If you build it, they will come.”
The old men on Duke’s team seemed to step out of their graying skin and recapture some of the vigor they must have had when they were the life force of the town — before desks and shops and farms took their hearts.
And that’s a great segue into….
The story-telling and atmosphere and characterization
But something was different. It wasn’t the way he looked so much as the way he moved. Maybe she’d never noticed the way he moved before. He was always merely present, or not present. Visible, or not visible. Today, however, she watched his every step,
I blather a lot about my beloved Book Trance. It’s impossible to quantify or qualify, but when everything aligns, it’s four hours later and my dog is glaring at me with that “my water bowl is EMPTY, get your lazy butt off that couch, you dumbass” look she does so well.
I was out of town for most of this read, so instead of ignoring the dog, I had to put my Kindle down and go to a baby shower. I know, right???
Just in case she’s reading this: Dear Baby Sister Who’s Having a Baby: YOU KNOW I LOVE YOU AND YOUR UNBORN CHILD, but, you know, I HAVE BOOKS TO READ. You’ll recall that I did NOT sneak my Kindle into the host’s bathroom to read, AND it’s a book about GOD and BASEBALL, so you are obligated to forgive my momentary mental selfishness. We’ll discuss the baby-naming thing later. Love, Your Big Sister (not the bossy one, the other one).
Where were we? Ahhhh, yes — knee-deep in a book trance and sinking deeper every paragraph. I do have a point for all this, just gimme a sec.
SO: The narrative structure. The author gives us revolving POVs of the four main characters, with the occasional interstitial backstory or scene-setting in the form of telegrams, newspaper articles, church bulletin announcements, etc.
You’re probably cringing, because we all know when that framework doesn’t work, it takes the whole story down with it. But, boy howdy, Pittman pulls it off, and she really knows how to do the “show, don’t tell” thing.
The three adult POVs are third-person, each with a distinct voice that matches the character perfectly:
…“They don’t trust a drunkard to get a hit. If my judgment’s off by this much,” Duke held up his hand and closed one eye, pinching Miss Elijah Jane Voyant’s head between his thumb and forefinger, “I won’t be able to pull a double play.”
…“I want to take the field with Cy Young and Cap Anson.” Ned gave a little punch to each signed letter, his fingers moving deftly with each transition. “I want my face on a card in a package of Old Judge cigarettes.” For added effect, he assumed the slouch he’d seen the older boys take on when they stood outside the dormitory and smoked under the gaslight. “And finally,” he said, allowing a dramatic pause, “I want dozens of beautiful girls lined up to give me kisses after the game.”
Did I mention that Ned is deaf? And that Ellie Jane thinks it’s her fault? And that there was a caterpillar involved? No? So sorry — guess you’ll just have to READ IT YOURSELF.
But that’s enough of the grown-ups. The real voice of this story is 12-year-old Morris, who skips class at the black school to earn his “getaway money” by carrying bags, delivering telegrams and throwing strikes. Pittman lets Morris tell his own story through BRILLIANT first-person voiceover.
It’s a whole page of pictures of white boys wearin striped shirts. They all look like miniature Mr. Dukes without the moustache, standin with their arms on their hips and their chests puffed out. Like they had some kind of power. I look at that and figure that’s why Mr. Duke is always tellin me to stand up straight like my mama hasn’t ever told me to.
We’ll get back to Morris in a bit, because that young man has a lot to say, and it’s all just ridiculously wonderful. So for now, I’ll just sneak in one example more of the subtle but powerful writing that kept me enthralled:
Then they were at the corner. Her corner. The corner where he’d stood last Saturday night — almost until dusk — wearing his second-best suit, wondering if Ellie Jane Voyant would come outside and sit on her porch.
If she had, he would have walked right up to the little iron gate in front, smiling until good manners forced her to invite him up for a glass of lemonade. After that he’d be ready, really ready this year, to ask her to walk with him.
If not this Saturday, the next.
But she hadn’t come outside. An hour later, when he couldn’t hear but could certainly suspect the pitying conversations of the happier couples and groups that passed him by, Ned went home.
And that’s a great segue into….
Six days a week for the past five years, two o’clock was his favorite hour, bested only by the time spent in church on Sundays where she sat two pews ahead of him, slightly to the left.
I know, I know. Inspie romance = no sex = “sweet” = YAWN, right?
Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. The best inspie authors — Deeanne Gist, Julie Klassen, Siri Mitchell, and now I’m adding Pittman to my list — create swoon-worthy heroes and HEA-worthy heroines, and give them all the flirting and passion and unrequited love required for even the most jaded romance readers.
“See? One hit, and it’s a whole new game.”
When she turned around she was so close, and he was fighting a whole new instinct. But something in her eyes told him she was fighting too, and for the first time in six years, Ned thought he might have a chance.
And, believe it or not, I’m finding that characters in historical inspies actually seem to have more freedom to give in to the occasional temptation than their contemporary counterparts. Instead of an emphasis on achieving holier-than-thou Godly perfection, historicals tend to focus more on subtle themes of trust and doubt and redemption.
Don’t believe me? Exhibit A:
Duke brought his other hand up and ran his finger gently across her lips. “I’d like to kiss you now.”
“Why?” Her lips puckered around the word.
“Because you’re a beautiful woman.” But even as he said it, he knew that wouldn’t be enough of a reason. So he took his hands away completely, stuffed them into his pockets, and took a stab at something close to the truth. “Because I haven’t kissed a woman since I quit drinking. Because tonight I found out what it’s like to play baseball sober. And I—”
“Just want to know what it feels like?”
He gave a slow nod.
“I don’t love you, Mr. Dennison.”
“I don’t blame you.”
And then Ellie Jane succumbs to Duke’s charms — or maybe it’s the other way around — and the experience changes them both profoundly. For Duke, it’s an affirmation that he’s still a man:
There’d been a time, soon after he’d been brought to the sanatorium, when he feared he was making a devastating exchange. Sobriety for manhood. Never again being able to make love to a woman. But tonight, as he held Ellie Jane in his arms, felt her warm and pliant against him, the small of her back, the curve of her waist, his fears became unfounded. Clearheaded, he drank her in. Wanted to swallow great gulps of her. To take sip after sip until she was fully consumed.
But for Ellie Jane, it’s a stunning realization that (a) men find her attractive; and (b) she was thinking of a different man during the entire kiss. We learn a lot about Ellie Jane during the following morning’s church service.
“‘Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true—’”
Like the fact that she’d stood, in a near state of undress, crushed in the arms of a would-be ardent lover?
“‘—whatsoever things are honest—’”
She’d told him, flat out, that she didn’t love him. She just wanted to know — needed to know how it felt…
“‘—whatsoever things are just—’”
“‘—whatsoever things are pure—’”
“‘—whatsoever things are lovely—’”
Undeniably, Duke’s arms were strong. His lips soft. His fingers, warm on her skin. Lost in her hair. Stroking the base of her throat. He told her she was beautiful. He thought she was wonderful. Was he sitting beside her now, thinking those same things?
“‘—whatsoever things are of good report—’”
And if he was, what must he think of her? What a lot of good it would do after last night, trying to point him toward any kind of moral existence when all it took to topple her off her prim tower was a simple — albeit deep — kiss on a balcony. Not even a balcony but a bedroom. His bedroom. Steps away from his bed.
“‘—if there be any virtue—’”
If there be, indeed. Two Sundays ago there was virtue. Last Sunday there was virtue, even if the situation was primed for corruption. But this Sunday, oh, how it festered in question.
Yes, she frets about “virtue.” But it’s not the “oh my goodness gracious, my hymen is in jeopardy!” kind of virtue. Our heroine realizes that it wasn’t virtuous of her to moralize about Duke’s previous affairs. And it most definitely wasn’t virtuous of her to have Ned in her head and heart while she was in Duke’s arms.
But if you read that passage closely, you’ll see that Ellie Jane doesn’t regret the kiss. She wanted that kiss. She needed and deserved that kiss, and she knew what the consequences would be. Her concerns about virtue are directed toward the impact of her actions on Duke and Ned – not on herself or her status as a virginal maiden.
Compare that to some of the “Halo Heroine Redeems the Manwhore” crap that’s so prevalent in contemporary inspirationals, and it’s pretty easy to understand why I prefer historicals.
But wait – there’s more!
Let’s not forget about Noble Ned in all this. One look at Ellie and Duke avoiding each other at church that morning, and Ned knows something happened.
His eyes bored into the back of Duke Dennison’s neck. He’d seen a magician once — one of the many diversions an adventurous boy in a big city could find — who had made his beautiful, scantily clad assistant disappear in a puff of smoke. If Ned’s eyes held half the power of that magician’s wand, Duke would be nothing more than a pinkie ring left spinning on a pew.
He reins in his jealousy enough to get himself invited to supper at Ellie’s house before he confronts her. This is a long excerpt, but you’ll see why I had to include the whole thing:
“Do you love him?”
She twisted her body to face him. He was gazing above her head, out the window, so she lifted her hand and touched his face, feeling the tension in his jaw. He seemed to be fighting for control, so she waited until he looked down before she shook her head again and whispered, “No.”
He closed his eyes and captured her hand, turning his face to bury his lips in her palm.
“It didn’t mean anything,” she said, resisting the urge to shout.
“Of course it does.” He released his grip and she felt like she’d been dropped to the floor.
“No!” And this time not only did she shout, she grabbed his arms to hold him in place. “It doesn’t matter!”
But it did, to him, she could tell…. “It was a moment of weakness. I was thinking of you, but he was just so—”
Somewhere behind her jumble of words she heard his voice. How long he’d been talking, she didn’t know, but when she peeked above her fingers, he was smiling down at her.
“It matters because I love you, Ellie Jane.”
“You do?” She pulled her hand away and tried her best to look irresistible.
Apparently, she succeeded.
His kiss was soft and warm, gentle and chaste against her lips. She felt a certain heat spreading through her body — not the rolling explosion that rocked her the night she kissed Duke, or even the electric current from a few minutes ago, but a slow, steadily growing fire, melting her from within. Every bone turned to wax, dripping down inside, hardening into a relentless ball at her core, then starting all over again.
It ended too soon, in the middle of a melting moment. When Ned drew his lips away, she kept her eyes closed and tried to follow, opening them only to find that he stood tall above her, looking down with eyes that, even in the growing shadows, held flickers of all that had nearly consumed her.
“I’ve waited six years to do that,” he said.
“Because I couldn’t even get you to look at me.”
“No,” Ellie Jane said, harnessing all those lonely years behind her question. “Why did you wait?”
He bent low and placed one more quick kiss on her lips. “I didn’t have a choice.”
That *thud* you heard was my Kindle hitting floor. Again.
SO. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it, haters. Don’t give me any of those “all inspies are preachy and sappy and boring” excuses. You just have to find the right fit — just like any other genre.
And so what if I’m getting preachy about defending my non-preachy books? It’s MY blog, and I can be hypocritical whenever I feel like it.
The baseball bromance
“That’s the first lesson in fielding a ball. You and me, we have to find each other. Look each other straight in the eye.”
Getting back to the ingredients of our movie mash-up, we now come to The Natural and Places in the Heart portion of the pop culture metaphor.
As we’ve seen, big-leaguer Duke Dennison has unwittingly upended the town of Picksville, Missouri – and not just the residents on the white side of the tracks. All it takes is a simple toss of an apple on Ellie Jane’s back porch, and 12-year-old Morris’s life is transformed, inside and out.
“Not if you throw it right.”
The kid tossed the apple gently — up and down in his hand — and smiled again. “What if I don’t?”
“If you can’t lob an apple twenty feet, then you’re a sorry excuse for a boy.”
Less than a second later, the apple was in Duke’s hand. He hadn’t seen the boy throw it, didn’t see it flying toward him. There was just a golden zip out of the corner of his eye, and his fingers clutched instinctively once the skin of his palm touched the skin of the fruit.
And then it’s Duke’s turn to throw — and be thrown:
With confidence equal to any player Duke had ever thrown a ball to, Morris tracked the missile, took half-a-step back, and brought his hand in front of him. There was a soft sound when the apple’s golden skin connected with the boy’s palm. A humble, perfect catch….
“Thank you, sir. Anything else?”
“Yeah.” Duke took the cigar out of his mouth. “Come back tomorrow. And bring a glove.”
“Ain’t got a glove.”
“Come back anyway. I’ll let you use mine.”
I know I used “bromance” in the subheading for this section, but I couldn’t think of anything that describes the relationship that evolves between these two. Morris isn’t just a rookie player without a coach, and Duke is much more than a paternalistic mentor to the lonely boy.
For the first time in both their lives, they each have someone who really needs them. And despite the fact that one is a rich white man and the other is a dirt-poor black kid, they understand each other perfectly.
Now so far this has turned out to be a million dollar day and I can’t even think of anything that would make it better. Then Mr. Duke comes down off that front porch and he’s smilin bigger than a quarter moon. Come back here, he says, and I open the gate and follow him to the backyard. Then he says, Here you are, and hands me a brand new glove.
On the surface, it’s just a simple gesture of kindness — Duke’s a rich guy, after all, and he could afford to buy a new glove for every kid in town. Yet throughout the following weeks, we learn that Duke desperately needs these quiet, hidden afternoons just as much as Morris.
Eventually, Duke decides it’s time to take his new protégé public, so he recruits Ned to be the first witness to Morris’s phenomenal talent.
The minute the ball left the boy’s hand, Ned saw nothing but the gray leather orb barreling right down the line. As it came closer and closer, he tensed for impact. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the bat cut through the air, but just a breath too late because the ball was now cradled safely in his glove, and the bat dangled uselessly in Duke’s hand. Ned had never seen a man so proud to swing a strike.
Morris IS Roy Hobbs. But younger. And black. Keep up with me here.
Morris obviously needs a bigger playing field, which leads to Duke laying out base paths in the vacant lot next to the train depot. He builds it, and the people come. Baseball fever takes over the residents of Picksville, even to the point of grudgingly accepting Morris as an equal and defending him against his mother’s jealous and vengeful suitor.
The one thing the opposing teams won’t do is throw Morris a decent pitch to hit — he gets walked every single at-bat. Then, during a tense, impromptu game spurred by the arrival of some sinister good ol’ boys from Duke’s drunken past, Morris finally gets his bat on the ball.
He’s standin just in front of our bench and kind of wavin his hand tellin me, Come on son. Just go for home….
The catcher’s up and a pile of dust is spreadin so high I can’t be sure where I am but I figure if I just keep on goin forward, runnin straight, I’ll make it home.
Morris does make it home — physically and spiritually. Because this is where Places in the Heart comes into play. If you’ve seen that movie, you can probably make a pretty accurate guess at what happens 90% into the story that made me HATE THIS BOOK.
Don’t worry, no spoilers. I’d have to get my lazy ass up off the couch to get ANOTHER box of kleenex because OH MY GOD (the holy version), “heart-rending” doesn’t even begin to cover it. “Gut-wrenching” is closer. “Throttling” might be a more accurate verb. No, wait — that’s what I wanted to do to [NO SPOILERS].
Just reach in, yank out everything even remotely emotional, and then STOMP ON IT. But only for as long as it takes to empty you out enough to make room for something new. Or different. Or just more of what you were taking for granted.
GAH. Where’s the damn kleenex???
And that’s the perfect segue into….
The faith messages
Now I’ve been buildin dreams for myself for as long as I’ve been able to put thoughts together but I ain’t never dreamed of anything so fine as that. And you just can’t take a breath when a dream is bein true.
If you’ve read this far, I’m going to assume you’re in it to the last inning, which means I’m going to get pretty schmaltzy, but I promise no sermonizing.
Morris is the eyes, ears and conscience of Picksville, and through his BRILLIANT first-person voiceovers (it’s worth repeating), we get the faith of a child spoken with the sometimes-wicked humor of the young man he’s becoming.
Seein her locked up in that little booth all the time I never knew that woman could talk so much. I never knew any woman could talk so much. And I guess that’s just more showin the wisdom of God pairin up a woman with that mouth and a man with them ears.
In the previous baseball inspie I read, the hero is basically shamed into going to church, and then he Sees The Light when he cracks open the Good Book for the first time and a Magical Bible Verse pops out and smacks him on the head. Not so much in this book.
Saturday afternoon means one thing. Church. There’s no way my mama’s gonna let me skip out on it to play baseball. So I tell him the problem — nothin about the money just about church.
I say, Yeah. We’re Adventists and that’s when we go. Every Saturday, four o’clock.
…Mr. Duke laughs and says that’s why he never went in for church — might interfere with his baseball.
I tell him there ain’t any reason why a fellow couldn’t have both but if he had to choose well baseball couldn’t ever offer up the kind of promises the Lord can. What kind of hope can you have in a game?
He picks up the ball and tosses it from hand to hand a few times before he talks again. He says when he was just about my age he had nothin to give him any kind of hope.
I say, That’s a shame because God and baseball was both around back then.
He says his old man never would’ve let him have either one.
Not done yet….
Right then Mr. Duke and I are at a place where we’re just the same. Hard to tell who’s the boy and who’s the man because all I want to do is try to take away the sadness that’s come over his face. I’m thinkin maybe I can help him know God the way he helped me know baseball and in my heart I know there’s room enough for both. So even though I’m not real sure how I’m gonna make it happen I tell him that I’ll be here this afternoon for the game.
He says, What about your Holy Spirit?
I tell him it’s not my Holy Spirit it’s God’s and it’s with me all the time. The rest of the church is on their own.
Then just because it seems the thing to do I rip off half of the sweet roll and hand it over to him. He puts the whole hunk in his mouth so I put the rest in mine and we just sit there and chew and chew while the minutes of the mornin waste away.
I’ll give you a moment to recover from that.
That was about halfway into the book. I was already sold by chapter two, and completely hooked by the time Morris put on that brand-new glove. So naturally I thought that scene would be the spiritual high point, because it really couldn’t get any better.
I WAS WRONG.
A few chapters later, we get Morris’s play-by-play and color commentary as he’s sitting by himself in the town square on an ordinary Sunday morning. And I swear to God (sacred-wise, of course), this scene just about killed me. In the best possible way.
I can hear them singin from the churches all around me. Seems they sing so slow like their spirits are all tied up in some fancy wrap. Can’t imagine their women cryin or their men on the floor eyes up to Jesus. Maybe in their church they like to sit real still so the Holy Spirit will know how to find them. Kind of settle in the gaps and fill up the room. Not like our church where we keep Him hoppin.
But then even this quiet settles down into a quiet I don’t know I’ve ever heard. Round my house even dead of night you hear people talkin. Hear them fightin when the man comes home late or hear them lovin each other in the dark. This is white quiet. I don’t know if we could ever sound like this on my side of the railroad tracks.
Must be the preacher’s time. All that talk about Jesus and His life and His love — can’t be too different from church to church. I ain’t never had a Bible of my own but I heard enough of it to know what it says and the same Lord that loves me loves them just the same.
It’s like what Mr. Duke taught me about pitchin baseball. Every man — short, fat, tall, or slim — has the same strike zone. That same invisible box between his knees and his heart. Some churches just swing a little higher than others.
I wonder what kind of noise they’d make if I took it upon myself to just wander right in. How loud would those heads be turnin around? If that would rattle them out of what they know to do. If it would throw them off their worship game.
But I don’t because right now I’m in the sweet spot. Like I’m square in the middle of a perfect throw. God’s lookin down and seein me — one black boy in the middle of a green, green park surrounded by lily-white noise.
This mornin this is my church.
THIS is why I have inspirationals amongst all the smut on my Kindle.
Does Duke go to church? Yes, but mostly to impress Ellie Jane. Does he repent of his formerly wicked ways? More or less. Does the [NO SPOILERS] make him doubt his emerging faith? Absolutely. Does he have the all-important Magical Bible Verse Moment? Nope, because he doesn’t need one.
The sunlight was new and blinding, but Duke couldn’t look away. He lifted his face to it. Soaked it in. Somewhere behind the warmth, Morris stood on the mound, all wound up and waiting.