Whitney, a small-town, Pleasantville in the American South of the 1950s, is rocked by a social, political, and religious earthquake that hits when Percy Jackson becomes the first black player on the town’s semi-pro baseball team, the Bobcats. Although anticipated from the outset of the novel, this earthquake doesn’t hit Whitney initially, nor does it hit all at once. Tremours of racial anger shake the town and build in intensity until Whitney is divided along an ever-widening fault line of racial discrimination.
This is not, however, the first impression of the town. Jack Hall, sports columnist and narrator, takes us into his quaint, small-town world in the first sections of the book. These chapters are sketched in sentimental pastels. The characters come across as wooden and conventional until conflict starts to literally colour their world.
Percy Jackson, a talented short stop from the black high school on the poor side of town, is recruited in a controversial last-ditch effort to keep the Bobcat baseball franchise from folding because of financial difficulty. Ticket sales are down because air-conditioning and I Love Lucy are keeping people happily in their homes and away from ball games played under the scorching Carolina summer sun.
Percy’s unusual talent, transposed to third-base, starts drawing more fans and boosting ticket sales. However, much to the chagrin of the town’s white citizens, these new ticket-buyers are from the “coloured” section of town. The racial mixing that results starts the earthquake that eventually threatens to divide the town.
Later sections of the novel make the earlier, overly-sentimental sections fade in the reader’s memory. Doster does a great job of portraying how all-encompassing this conflict becomes. It is not long after Jack Hall begins defending Percy Jackson’s right to play baseball that Jack becomes completely surrounded by those who want to see him abandon Percy’s cause. The most disturbing voice in this is Jack’s wife.
The strength of this novel is its ability to transport the reader into a racially-tense time and community, from the perspective of a narrator only beginning to perceive his own racist views. Racism in this novel, much to Doster’s credit, is never dealt with lightly or typically. Through Jack Hall’s perspective, the reader is forced to confront the insidiousness of racial prejudice. Jack himself, though kind-hearted towards Percy, does not want his own son going to a “mixed school.” Aside from the baseball player roster, he wants things to stay as they have always been in his small town.
But Jack’s world, once Percy is allowed to play ball, cannot hold together. Conflict begins to shake his work-life and home-life, even his worldview, until he is forced to face his own prejudices.
I love playing baseball, but I don’t enjoy watching it. This novel, with quick-moving prose, drew me into each game. (Although this could also be a result of Doster’s jumping from the first inning to the ninth, the only two innings I really care about in any pro game). That I, a guy almost entirely uninterested in professional baseball, became completely engrossed by Doster’s novel is a testament to the strength of the writing in its later chapters, and the increasing momentum of the plot. Although it is a “baseball novel,” it is also a story deeply rooted in the racial conflict surrounding the early civil rights movement in the American South.
Later in the novel a mob of white citizens bar the exit of black ticket-holders, hoping to force a reaction and give reason for a violent outbreak. But Reverend Phil Edwards, a well-known black pastor, herds his flock back inside the stadium where they sit down and begin to sing hymns. The white mob tries to drown them out with angry cries but in the end the voices that are heard are singing: “There is a balm in Gilead. To make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead. To heal the sin-sick source.” This moment of peace does not whitewash the racial tension but introduces the weapon of non-violence, later an essential tactic of the civil rights movement, under leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
In the end, no easy answers are offered in this novel. But this lack of quick fixes reads well. Jack cannot go back to his old way of life—his old view of the world. Black people like Percy Jackson and his family cannot now be forgotten by Jack or by the reader.
Doster takes us deep into a very conflicted consciousness—no easy feat in a first novel. When it overcomes its sentimentality and a clutter of clunky similes, the writing allows the reader a glimpse into a turbulent era of American history through the eyes of a narrator who—though sometimes unreliable—seeks to tell the truth.