A “novel based on personal experience” that follows the postwar legacy of baseball in a small Wisconsin town.
As the story opens, a man named Bones is attending an old-timers’ reunion, reminiscing about the glory days of the 1940s and ’50s Millersville High School baseball team in Wisconsin’s Kickapoo Valley. The rest of the book is a flashback to how that team developed after originating in Bones’ hometown of Sterling in 1946-47. Debut author Lagan paints an alluring picture of the rural Midwest, from the simple pleasures of nature and farm life to an idealized family culture: “We were taught values, and we knew that if problems arose, our parents would be there for us—no matter what.” Nevertheless, the town has its pitfalls—moonshine, violence, rough company—and it’s partially for these reasons that the town’s parents convert a planting field to a baseball diamond and get the boys started on the basics. The first two-thirds of the book interweave the story of the rise of the baseball team with tales of life in Sterling, including a visit by “gypsies,” a time that local kids put an outhouse on the roof of the bank, a harsh winter and a big flood. These stories are each appealing on their own. However, these threads could have used a stronger narrative arc to tie their themes together. To some degree, readers learn the baseball players’ names, personalities on the field, and back stories, but they don’t come to know them intimately enough to feel their losses and triumphs. And the small-town anecdotes, while sometimes engaging, seem largely disconnected, which gives the book a meandering tone. This provides a disservice to the story of what is clearly a remarkable baseball team, although it’s unclear how much is factual; Lagan tells of the Kickapoo Kids going to the state championship three years out of four, playing against schools 10 times their size, and of five team members being drafted by Major League teams. Still, there are some memorable moments when the stories come together, such as when Dad and Preacher dry off the field by setting it on fire, or when Shane uses a beefsteak to pad his glove so that he can play as catcher. These times will evocatively remind readers of how baseball, in its early days, was a country boy’s sport.
The bones of a great American baseball story that could have been better told.