Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Power Hitters

Review: The Lost Tribe by Matthew Caldwell

With the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, sports became a precursive metaphor for the conflict of armies and philosophies that was to come in WWII. Ever since, the matching of sports teams has been used to illustrate the differences between one side and the other. 

From Victoire, the iconic soccer movie pitting Allied POWs against German ballers in Cologne, to American Pastime, an "inside baseball" film matching Japanese-Americans in internment camps against the hostile, sometimes bigoted local team, the image of the overmatched yet victorious underdog serves to underscore other victories.

Google "America's Pastime Sport" and the top reference is a definition of baseball. Baseball was an exhibition sport in 1936 Berlin; both teams who competed in that exhibition were supplied by the US.

Caldwell asks the question, "What if, after the Berlin Olympics, the Nazis had challenged us to a baseball series, one in which an American team was pitted against German players?" The answer to this question is The Lost Tribe. Harry Pike is a zamler, but not the simple collector you learn about if you look up the Yiddish expression. What he collects is luck, or perhaps the power that is derived from pain. With that power, he can then push luck outward, benefitting someone or some group.

Pike knows he has a calling to do something with this ability. Perhaps, as he initially believes, he is meant to save his buddy Abner, a minor-league ball player who has been shunned by his Jewish community for his decision to play on Rosh Hashana. Maybe he is supposed to rescue his employer, who publishes a small newspaper struggling to survive in the blasted economy of the Depression.

When he receives a substantial inheritance with the proviso that he use it to do good, Pike decides the best he can do for all those he may be intended to help is to field a baseball team in response to the Nazi challenge, and give the exclusive coverage to his paper. The players will be those rejected by major league teams for various reasons: One has a missing hand. One is black. One is a woman. And one, of course, is his friend Abner.

They don't expect the Nazis to play fair; in fact, Harry Pike does his best to winnow out players who will not be able to withstand the heat of scorn and derision they expect for their "mixed-race" team. The rest of the novel is about the way the team comes together as a family, a tribe. Along the way, Pike uses his tribe to do a wider good than he had planned at the start.

We don't need the supernatural ability of the zamler to drive this story. Its greatest power comes from the mystical appeal of baseball, and the power of the underdog to inspire us. And of course, from the implicit expectation that the metaphor will reflect real history, and the Allies will win.

On every level, The Lost Tribe satisfies our expectations.