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The Life of a Boy of Summer : ON HOME GROUND by Alan Lelchuk with illustrations by Merle Nacht (Gulliver Books/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $9.95; 72 pp.)

March 27, 1988|William J. Hochswender | Hochswender is a writer living in New York

Aside from the shared experience of sitting along the first base line at Ebbets Field, I don't quite remember Brooklyn the way Alan Lelchuk does in "On Home Ground," a short, sweet novel for young adults.

The Brooklyn I recall was not sunshiny days, Checker cabs and chocolate egg creams. It was turbulent, rough, sweaty and a nice place to move away from--fast.

Nevertheless, a sort of wistful, misty nostalgia--nicely captured in a series of illustrations--informs the story. It's 1947, "Double Indemnity" is playing in movie theaters, and Jackie Robinson is burning up the base paths while breaking the color barrier for Branch Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers.

Nine-year-old Aaron Schlossberg reveres the Negro sensation--and holds his strict Russian father increasingly in contempt. His dad dresses in heavy Old World suits and clings to "Stalinist" avocations ("chess, soccer, Chaplin"), which earn him the label "commie" around the neighborhood.

A sympathetic young war veteran takes Aaron under his wing and introduces him to the thrills of Ebbets Field during a heated pennant race. Aaron's immersion in America's pastime and the plight of its first black ballplayer ushers him into the wider world and brings him into conflict with his father's narrow ethnicity and deep-seated suspicions of modern life.

In a touching windup, however, Aaron comes to realize his father's unsuspected strengths. "On Home Ground" is a well-written tale that could have benefited from more action and less atmosphere. (Descriptions of Cardinal-Dodger games, for example, are taut and compelling.)

This is a story for young people that's really light years away from the inner-city realities of today. Yet it stays close to the timeless heart of a boy's love for an ordinary dad in a culture that produces larger-than-life heroes.

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