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Book reviews: The Cove, Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball and America Forever

Ron Rash scores again, but baseball book slumps

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The Cove by Ron Rash (Ecco, 272 pages, $26.99).

A smart and sensitive young woman named Laurel lives with her brother Hank in a deeply shaded, some say cursed, cove near Marshall, N.C. Hank has returned, missing a hand, from the ongoing First World War, and spends much of his time trying to rebuild and restore the family farm. He's a strong-willed and clever hard worker, but even so, he has to depend on a neighbor's help to perform the more difficult farm duties.

Both Hank and Laurel are lonely and haunted in their own ways. Laurel is largely shunned in the small town, due to the biddies who claim she's a witch because of a large birthmark on her neck. Hank, although it's never said aloud, is a changed man, more introverted and reflective than when he left for the war.

Hank finds the war intruding into the fabric of everyday life, even in a small mountain community so far from Europe. For one, a camp for German POWs is located near the town — something that actually occurred "in real life" near Marshall during the war. For another, the local army recruiter Chauncey Feith, a smug, ambitious fool, is so gung-ho about the war, in which he doesn't have to fight, that he goes around trying to sniff out potential "traitors."

One day in the woods, Laurel comes upon a stranger, nearly dead from yellow jacket bites and carrying a gorgeous silver flute. She takes the man, a mute named Walter, to the cove and nurses him back to health.

Out of those plot strands, Ron Rash creates a riveting, graceful novel that combines elements of mountain folktales, suspense, the power of music and dark Shakespearean conflicts, while blending in political drama that speaks clearly to recent U.S. history.

Rash's writing here is, as usual, simple, incisive and beautiful. Quick phrases and deft descriptions manage to illuminate a whole culture, its thoughts and ways of life. Yes, he's that good. The mountain landscapes, both rugged and delicate, reflect the creativity and destructiveness of the story's characters as they race to a powerful, nearly inevitable ending. The Cove is both gorgeous and at times harrowing. In other words, it's a continuation of Rash's increasingly acclaimed work.

Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball and America Forever by Tim Wendel (Da Capo, 304 pages, $26).

This could have, should have been a very good book. The author, Tim Wendel, says he wanted to report on how the cataclysms in the nation's streets in 1968 affected the sport that was still being called the national pastime. He certainly had plenty to work with. The summer of 1968 was era-defining, as the U.S. — actually much of the western world — was rocked by so many consecutive violent upheavals, it was easy to think it was never going to stop.

At the same time, major league baseball (MLB) had a transformative year. The art of pitching was more dominant than it has ever been before or since, including Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McClain's historic 31-win season and St. Louis Cardinal hurler Bob Gibson's chilling stare and terrifying pitching speed. Pitchers' dominance was so complete in '68, MLB lowered the pitcher's mound the following year, and shrank the strike zone to keep batters in the game, and fans in the seats.

A literary craftsperson, as opposed to, say, a notebook dumper, would have found a way to weave those two narrative threads — the political and racial violence and baseball's turmoil — into an interesting tableau of the times. Instead, Wendel gives us largely separate stories taking turns at bat, with occasional player stories agreeing that, yes, the nation's nasty move affected them.

The two stories combine smoothly early on, when two Tiger rookies are stranded near Tiger Stadium the day before the season's first game, and are told by a cop that they were breaking a citywide curfew, installed after the riots following Martin Luther King's assassination a few days earlier. Sadly, such moments of synergy between national turmoil and baseball are few and far between.

Hopefully, someone more skilled at creating narratives may take up this book's subject in the future. It was a great idea; it just didn't work this time around.

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