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Big Picture
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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Tocher, Timothy. Chief Sunrise, John McGraw, and Me.
Cricket, 2004 [160p]
ISBN 0-8126-2711-3 $15.95
Reviewed from galleys
Gr. 5-8

Every teacher knows these students, and every librarian knows these patrons-the kids who won't touch a novel unless it involves nine guys whacking and whipping a hardball around a diamond. Fortunately, it's no great challenge to find worthy titles to recommend, from Carl Deuker's tense contemporary morality tales (most recently, High Heat, BCCB 6/03) to John Ritter's ought-to-be-classic historical fiction Choosing Up Sides (6/98). Now add to the roster this fast-paced fictional road trip with the 1919 New York Giants, perfectly pitched to summer readers who fill their downtime from playing baseball with . . . reading baseball.

Tacitly acknowledging that middle-graders don't allow authors much warm-up time, Tocher hurls readers right into the action. Fifteen-year-old Hank Cobb, as he's chosen to call himself, is fed up hopping freight trains with his good-for-nothing father, and in one life-altering moment, he seizes his chance for freedom and lets his old man drop from the side of a boxcar. Within minutes of that irrevocable act Hank finds himself in the company of another rail rider, who calls himself Chief Sunrise, "the greatest Indian to ever step on a baseball diamond, pitching immortal in the making." Hank shares Chief's passion for the game and, his wariness overcome by curiosity and lack of better options, he willingly joins Chief on his multi-state odyssey to track down Giants manager John McGraw and hustle a slot in the lineup. Catching up with the team isn't easy, and Hank and Chief keep body and soul together unloading trucks, running a con with a traveling fair, cleaning stadium seats and working as a bouncer in the stands, until the big break comes and Chief finds himself on the mound. He is, as predicted, a triumph, but his reluctance to provide personal background for prying reporters puts McGraw on alert. It takes naïve Hank longer than the savvy manager to learn that Chief is actually a black man passing as a Seminole, and by then Chief has again changed his identity and gone off to join the newly formed Negro National League.

Tocher creates two intriguingly ambiguous characters-a boy who doesn't know his real name and a man who won't reveal his-and masterfully positions them in a post-World War I America (the book includes a historical note) where everything from the broad social order to the narrower field of sportsmanship smacks of flimflam. As Hank patiently waits his turn for the sports section, he leafs through newspaper stories of returning veterans who find their jobs gone and of black citizens for whom the global battle for democracy has been rendered ludicrous by home-grown bigotry. In major-league baseball, public heroes privately mistrust their managers and parlay their salary gripes into thrown games, and reporters fill the holes in players' vitae with any story they think will sell. Farther down the baseball food chain, all-girl teams like the Bloomers (with whom Hank puts in a hilarious game as shortstop, until the pitcher loses his temper and his wig in a small town match-up) are none too persnickety about the gender of their ringers. And any reader who's ever swung at a change-up will appreciate Tocher's take on the feints endemic to the game itself-the bogus signals, the stolen bases, the stalls for time, the pitches with unfathomable trajectories. Tocher never loses sight of the line between amusing roguery and pernicious deceit, though. Hank's stint with the Bloomers and Chief's shameless fleecing of shooting-gallery patrons at a backwater carnival are broadly drawn with a wink and a grin, but there's nothing laughable here about the racism that forces Chief to hide his identity in order to bring his prodigious ability into a proper arena, or about Hank's father's efforts (from his new quarters at Sing Sing) to blackmail Chief into fixing a game.

Unlikely buddies are a dime a dozen in the world of fiction, but Hank and Chief's story, which begins in a shadowy boxcar and ends with an uncertain future, gains freshness and credibility from Tocher's restrained delineation of friendship. In the end, readers know little more about Chief than when they first met-save for his name (which now scarcely seems to matter), his indisputable talent, his own rules of integrity, and his concern for Hank, which, though clearly genuine, is realistically limited by his professional ambitions. Chief cannot haul Hank along with him on the road to success, but he does leave him on the shoulder, facing the right direction. That, and a season's worth of memories, is more than enough.

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

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Cover illustration by Greg Copeland from Cheif Sunrise, John McGraw, and Me ©2004. Used by permission of Cricket Books.

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This page was last updated on July 1, 2004.