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Take That, Harry Potter!

SUMMERLAND: A Novel, By Michael Chabon, Miramax Books/Hyperion: 500 pp., $22.95

September 29, 2002|ADAM BRESNICK | Adam Bresnick writes for several publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement.

Besides proving conclusively that there are countless pots of gold to be collected at the end of the children's books rainbow, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series showed once again that writing for the younger set has a distinct advantage: Kids are in many ways a better literary audience than adults. For most grown-ups, literature merely affords a momentary respite from the rigors of the world, whereas children positively revel in the plasticity of the imagination as they plunge into the fantasy worlds of fiction.

If, as Edgar Allan Poe claimed, the imaginative writer seeks to produce a riveting effect that will transport the reader from the armchair to the transcendent realm of the imagination, what better way to accomplish this minor miracle than to write novels for children, who are always in the business of self-transformation? These days, a serious contemporary novelist's choice to write so-called young adult fiction must be understood to be the very opposite of slumming.

Given these advantages, it should come as no surprise that Michael Chabon, fresh from the triumph of his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," should jump into the kid-lit fray. "Summerland" has many essential aspects of ambitious post-Rowling children's literature: a super-nerd protagonist who is called upon to do great things in a hitherto unknown world; a couple of indispensable sidekicks who aid and abet the hesitant protagonist as he makes his way toward the climactic showdown that will furnish the novel's conclusion; a Manichaean struggle between good and evil that results in the nerd hero's facing down the lord of badness, here called Coyote; and a motley assortment of magical creatures, among them ferishers, sasquatches, shadowtails, skrikers, werefoxes and graylings.

Whereas Rowling presents a wry satire of British boarding school culture, Chabon sets his novel on the distinctly American terrain of the baseball diamond, the proverbial field of dreams of the U.S., incorporating Native American folklore as well as aspects of Scandinavian mythology in what ought to be a whiz-bang home-grown entertainment for both the kid set and geezers given to youthful fancy.

Ethan Feld is an insecure youth who has moved with his father from Colorado Springs to the Pacific Northwest after the death of his mother. An amateur inventor, Bruce Feld has developed a picofiber zeppelina, a kind of mini-dirigible that he hopes one day to market as an airborne alternative to the family car.

As a member of the hapless Ruth's Fluff 'n' Fold Roosters of the Clam Island Little League, Ethan is regularly humiliated by his lack of baseball prowess, though he admires the grace and power exhibited by Jennifer T. Rideout, the hot jockette pitcher who is by far the best player on his team. His good friend Thor Wignutt is a kind of Spock figure here, a computer nerd who exhibits android features as well as extraordinary mathematical abilities.

One morning Ethan awakens from an uneasy slumber to find a magical werefox named Cutbelly propped up on his chest. Cutbelly is a Shadowtail, a creature able to jump from world to world and so to knit together apparently disparate realms. As Cutbelly explains to the mystified Ethan, the universe is a kind of enormous Tree that contains four separate worlds, and just as the branches of a tree overlap at certain points, so do the worlds of the universal Tree, producing the galls that allow a Shadowtail to scamper from world to world.

Cutbelly warns Ethan that the Tree is in grave danger, as the villainous Coyote has been pruning back the galls and so eliminating the connections between worlds as he prepares to poison the Tree at its roots.

To accomplish this awful deed, Coyote has kidnapped and brainwashed Ethan's father, as the inventor's revolutionary picofibers are necessary to the evil one's nefarious plans to poison Murmury Well, which waters the Tree at its roots. Playing on the Scandinavian myth of Ragnarok, or the end of the world, Chabon calls the demise of the Tree Ragged Rock, a doomsday that appears to be imminent, and so has the magical creatures of Summerland scurrying about in dread.

It is up to Ethan and his cronies Jennifer T. and Thor to scamper from the Middling into the Winterland and then to the Summerland, where they will meet a panoply of fantasy characters and play various baseball games in an attempt to rescue Dad and waylay Coyote as he pursues his perfidious plans to annihilate the universe. By the end, Ethan will have saved the day and, perhaps more important, he will have developed into a pretty solid catcher.

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