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Nine year old Trisha McFarland, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, is out for a short hike on the Appalachian Trail with her divorced Mom and her brother, who are arguing so vociferously that they fail to notice when she stops to relieve herself.  When Trisha tries to get back on the Trail, she becomes disoriented and is quickly lost in the dense woods.  In the ensuing days she will be forced to fend for herself, armed with little more than some junk food, a poncho, a Walkman and a surpassing love for the Red Sox closer.  Battling bugs, bogs, hunger, malevolent woodland spirits and bears, she is sustained by listening to Red Sox games, by visitations from a spirit Gordon and by "The Subaudible", as her father once described his impression of the divine in every day life.

There are a couple of things I really liked about this book.  First, it is one of the most feminist stories you'll ever read.  Trisha is the sole character for nearly the entire book.  She is determined and resourceful and easy to root for in her quest to survive.  Second, I liked the sustaining effect of the radio broadcast of the Sox games.  I am a huge fan of radio baseball; except in very rare cases, I would rather listen than watch.  As it happens, I listen to Sox games too.  Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano are not terribly good broadcasters--especially if, like me, you grew up listening to Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner do Mets games--but the rhythms of the game, the daily presence and the steady narrative flow over a period of months all combine to make them a welcome presence on Summer nights.  Baseball is the one sport that can be fully captured on radio, perhaps because it is so familiar that we can run the films in our minds and don't really need to see in order to "see."  Whatever the reason, anyone who has a similar love of radio can easily relate to the comfort that the games provide this little lost girl.

There is, however, another aspect of the book which is much less successful, that is the spiritual angle.  Taken purely for what he is, Stephen King is one of the great storytellers in all of literature.  But that is pretty much all there is,  Critics have tried reading more into this book in particular, by taking Trisha's relationship with the Tom Gordon spirit and with the Subaudible to imply that King has found God or something.  Well, it is something, but it's not God.  We Red Sox fans are familiar with Gordon's religious devotion, which he demonstrates by pointing heavenward after every save.  Like her hero, Trisha determines that she will have to cultivate the quality of having "ice water in her veins."  But Gordon, of course, derives his sublime confidence and self-assurance from his faith in God.  Trisha seemingly derives hers from faith in Gordon and the Subaudible alone.  If King's point is that traditional organized religions are all hogwash and faith of any kind suffices, even faith in a temporarily celebrated ballplayer, point taken.  But to suggest that the book offers any kind of profound new spiritual side of King seems to be quite a stretch.

In a way, this is somewhat disappointing.  King had an opportunity here to actually grapple with a weighty theme for once.  The book would be much better, and more significant, if Trisha's experience did forge in her some heightened spirituality.  Her adoration of Gordon could have been a leaping off point for her to consider why his religiosity provides him with such empowering spiritual sustenance.  Her fairly stock confrontation with the creature at the end of the book could have been replaced with a really interesting confrontation with the fact of her own possesion of a soul.  But King's not really interested in these ideas, which is of course his right.

Over all, I did like the book; it is helped greatly by the fact that it can be read in one sitting.  I particularly like the idea that thirty years from now you'll be able to pick up the book and recapture one fairly mediocre iteration of the Red Sox (though I found it enormously frustrating that Jason Varitek's name was repeatedly spelled "Veritek.") and have a whole flood of memories come cascading down. This is an enjoyable enough way to kill a couple hour--an ideal plane book--but if you're looking for any important philosophical messages within its pages, you're bound to be disappointed.

(N.B.--except for some brief and relatively mild profanity, the book is appropriate for teens, who should like it very much)

Bryan Francoeur's Review:

I recently picked up The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon in the SeaTac airport while waiting for my flight back to the east coast. I was about fifty pages away from the end of The Stand and I knew that wouldn't last the million or so hours I was going to spend crammed in the back of a Southwest Airlines DC-3 "Bus With Wings." I had already read the other two King offerings available (Different Seasons and Carrie) and was in no mood to try an author that I had no experience with (John Grisham).

I had not expected to be impressed by it. For a large part of my adolescence, I devoured every Stephen King book I could get my hands on. short stories, novellas whatever.  Then I started to be less and less interested by him. The plots seemed to run together. The infamous "Stephen King Seventh Inning Stretch," (that middle third of some of his longer novels that just seems to drag out to the horizon until the action picks up at the end) got under my skin more and more.  The last straw was The Tommyknockers where the whole book seemed to be one long seventh inning stretch.  I gave his short stories one more chance with Nightmares and Dreamscapes which I read while bleeding the air from my parents' hot water tank.  The one story about the cursed novelty chattering teeth that eat a guy made me laugh out loud (and to quote Woody Allen in Sleepers: "The teeth: they chatter!") I decided to stay away from any of King's more recent offerings until I was sufficiently desperate for reading material.

The heroine of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, 9-year old Trisha MacFarland, is one of those daughters every right-thinking guy wants to have: bright, witty, opinionated, and she likes baseball. Shoot, you can't grow 'em better than that in a petri dish! Her parents are divorced, and her older brother (hereafter referred to as "whats-his-name") is a typical 14 year old boy: a total jerk who couldn't  get along with his parents if the fate of the word depended on it.  During a mother-mandated outing on a section of the Appalachian Trail, the mother and Whats-his-Name are so busy bickering that Trish decides to take a side trip into the woods to urinate and get some peace. Bad idea. One wrong turn, coupled by two or three more wrong turns and she is lost in the deep Maine woods.

To her credit, she exercises better judgment than I usually do when I'm lost in the woods (picture Daffy Duck running in circles going, "Woo-hoo! Woo-hoo!").  Except for a couple of blunders, which can easily be explained by her age, she does many things right. She conserves her food and water, but not so much that she is in danger of dehydration. She takes bits and pieces of knowledge she has picked up over the years and uses it. Of course, this backfires on her sometimes, as when she uses a tidbit culled from The Little House on the Prairie novels, that whenever lost you should
 always follow a stream as they always lead to bigger streams and civilization. Maybe in the Dakota Territories in the 1800's that would have worked, but in Maine in the 1990's streams more often than not lead to swamps.

All through her trek, she senses that she is being shadowed by...something. She sees evidence of this from clawed up trees and mangled deer.  This critter is a bit of pure Stephen Kingism. In Danse Macabre, his nonfiction look at horror and what makes horror work, he talks about why not revealing the monster in all its glory increases fright. I'm working from memory here, but basically he says that if there is a monster in the closet at the top of the stairs and the author throws open the door to reveal a 50 foot tall monster, then the reader says, "Whew! At least it wasn't a 100 foot tall monster! Or a 1000!" But he also says that if the author hides the monster and never shows it, its kind of a cop out to the audience.  And this is where he falters, because we never really get a look at what the critter is. Is it merely a black bear (perhaps one bitten by Cujo)? While black bears are known to claw trees to mark their territory, they are not known for artistically mangling deer and passing up perfectly good berry patches to munch on some stringy little girl.  Is it some kind of It-like evil beasty that lives in the Maine woods? This coupled with the rest of Stephen King's work would certainly put Maine on the top of the "Evil Epicenters of the Galaxy" list, right ahead of Morrisville, VT. Or is it simply a conjuration of her own tenuous grasp on reality as she wanders through the woods?  Mr. King never clues us into this and I believe the story suffers from it.

Also accompanying her on her journey is the figure of baseball player Tom Gordon, who is the closing pitcher for the Red Sox, just like Sam Malone, only less drunk. She worships the ground Gordon walks on, and in her own non-sexual, prepubescent, nine-year old way she loves him. She maintains her connection to Tom Gordon and the outside world by listening to Red Sox games on her walkman. On her first night in the woods, overcome with fright, she remembers a bit of advice her mother gave her, to "think of something nice." Since thinking of home only depresses her, she thinks of Tom Gordon and what kind of conversation she would have with him. Over the next several days, as she goes more and more out of her head, Tom Gordon attains kind of an Obi-Wan like figure. He give her advice, points out things she might have missed and generally aids her journey.

There's been some talk about how this marks the New Spirituality of Stephen King. Frankly, I don't see it. Sure there's the figure of Tom Gordon on the good side and the evil critter on the bad side and an impassive "Subaudial" (a phrase for god she picked up from her drunken father) in the middle, but these are really just manifestations of her own disconnectedness from reality. It's not Tom Gordon showing her the fence post, its her seeing it and translating it through Tom Gordon. She's practically starved, got pneumonia, and is out of her head with fear. Sure, she's going to be seeing crazy things.  Trish shows a deep interest in matters spiritual, but what nine year old doesn't?  From what I understand of the beast, nine is about the age that most kids begin to question the nature of god and of their own souls. Trish being smarter than the average nine-year-old questions more deeply.

In the end, of course, she survives. I don't think its spoiling the ending to say that; its like saying James Bond beats the bad guys or the Starship Enterprise gets away. If Stephen King had spent all this time making us adore this little girl, only to have her get eaten by a bear on the last page, I would have run him over myself. The ending follows one of the main themes throughout King's work: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Put another way, the biggest monsters survive on fear. If you can conquer your fear of them, then your job is 90% done. And a big gun, rocks to throw at it, or a nuclear device never hurt either. See also the endings to IT, The Body and,  to a certain extent, The Stand.

I'm not the world's fastest reader, certainly not up the Judd Book-A-Day standard, but I positively burned though this one.  Even when the smelly hippie in the seat next to me pointed out the window and said. "Dude! Lightning!" I barely looked up. There were points when I was so engrossed by the action that the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood on end. Mr. King does his usual admirable job of creating a character, then breathing life into that character until we, the reader, are hanging breathlessly on every word.

Bryan's Grade: B+ (for writing a damn good book, but still not showing us the frikkin' monster)


Grade: (B)


See also:

Stephen King (4 books reviewed)
Book-related and General Links:
    -Life & Times : Stephen King (1947 -- ) (NY Times)
    -Official Stephen King Web Presence
    -BIO: Stephen King (1947-)(kirjasto)
    -BIO & INDEX: STEPHEN KING (1947-)(Books Unlimited, UK)
    -INTERVIEW: Up close and personal with Stephen King (Andrew O'Hehir, Salon)
    -The King of Death: Andrew O'Hehir peers into the terrifying world of one of our most important writers -- and recommends five Stephen King novels for newcomers. (Salon)
    -Stephen King Page
    -Unofficial Stephen King Homepage
    -Stephen King Website
    -Stephen King WebRing
    -Stephen King Links Springboard
    -Stephen King Links
    -Reader's Choice: Stephen King Novels
    -ESSAY: The Gospel According to Stephen King: The world's most famous 'horror writer' is also one of its most spiritually attuned novelists (Steve Lansingh, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: The Metamorphosis of Stephen King (elizabeth hand, Voice Literary Supplement)
    -EXCERPT: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King Excerpt : Prologue Pregame (Book Browse)
    -REVIEW: of Tom Gordon (CHARLES TAYLOR, Salon)
    -REVIEW: Woodsy Red Sox rhapsody hits home (Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW:  of Tom Gordon:  King winds real life into latest fiction (CNN)
    -REVIEW: Baseball tied to wilderness survival (Dorman T. Shindler, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: Stephen King: Out in left field:  The horror king steps out of his genre for a vivid tale of a Red Sox fan who's lost in the woods (Jeff Baker, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW: Stephen King whiffs with a heavy-handed tale (Connie Ogle, Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: (Erik Lundegaard, The Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon  Stephen King (Georges T. Dodds, SF site)
    -REVIEW: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon Stephen King (Derek Catsam, SportsJones Magazine)
    -REVIEW: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Jim Colosanti, Borders Staff)
    -REVIEW: (Harriet Klausner, Under the Covers)
    -REVIEW: (Kev, Charnel House)
    -REVIEW: (R. Good, Sentex)
    -REVIEWS: - The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon