After appearing as one of the stars of Ken Burns' Baseball documentary talking about her childhood as a Brooklyn Dodger fan (yeah!) and her adulthood as a Red Sox fan (boo!) people were asking her for more. She was very engaging on the small screen and I have to say her memoir is equally as engaging.
Before we get to the discussion I have a few comments to frame it all for you because the make up of the group did drive this discussion more than others we have had in the last 10.5 years. This was one of those discussions where I didn't go to one of my prepared questions until we were almost an hour in. Also, I should note that my ladies are all Goodwin's age, or at the most 10 years older, so they understood the world she was describing because they had lived it, just in Chicago (mostly) rather than NY.
I fell like as the only younger member of the group, I should let you know how I felt so that you don't think that you need to have lived during this era to enjoy this memoir. I really enjoyed the book. However, I love baseball and baseball history. I still prefer to listen to ball games on the radio or go to a game than watch them on TV. Also, I grew up in the NY area and am a huge Yankees fan. My Dad grew up in Queens during this era too. His Dad was a huge Dodger fan (my Dad has the 1955 Championship poster in his home still) and he was a huge Yankees fan in the late 60s. (He was under 10 when the Dodgers moved to LA). So I was predisposed to liking this memoir based on setting and main subject.
So in terms of appeal, I think you need to have a love for baseball as our National Pastime, a connection to or interest in the 1950s, or a love of memoirs in order to enjoy this book.
- We began with the liked, disliked, so-so question and all but 2 were an enthusiastic LIKEs! The two who voted so-so enjoyed her writing and the time period nostalgia, but one has no interest in sports or rooting for teams and the other grew up in Minnesota at that time where they did not have a baseball team so she couldn't get into the rivalry between the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees.
- The 10 who liked it had many reasons. First they all agreed it was super easy to just imagine the rivalry between the Cubs and Sox of the same era. In fact, many of them just changed the teams and players names in their heads. They all talked fondly of scoring games, listening on the radio, going to the ball park, rooting for their team, following every game, and arguing with friends and neighbors who rooted for the other team.
- We also talked about the time period. The participants spent most of the discussion reminiscing with Goodwin. I brought up the fact that the best memoirs make you recall your own memories, which led one lady to bring out her own list of her memories which this book made her think about. her list started a longer discussion about all of the great memories this book brought up. I will not list them all here, but let me say that talk of the era and of life at that time, took up most of our discussion. It was a fun and dynamic discussion. It flowed on its own with one participant bringing up a memory and relating it to the book and then another and another. I had to really do a lot of moderating on Monday, making sure everyone got to have their say. It was great!
- One participant felt the book was too light and positive. She wanted more depth and nuance, knowing what a great and well respected historian Goodwin is. Another participant who has read and enjoyed Goodwin's heavier books, presented a counterpoint here. She felt the entire tone of the book was one of nostalgia and adding more negativity, no matter how appropriate, would have spoiled the cohesive tone of the book.
- We did bring up the few troublesome issues from her childhood:
- Sick Mother: One participant grew up at the same time with a sick mother. She said this is how it was. People did not talk about it or dwell on it, but neighbors just picked up the slack with the kids. I mentioned how I wanted more depth here, but this participant said as a child, there would not have been more depth for Goodwin. Yes, looking back she could analyze it, but the memoir is written so that Goodwin is describing how she felt as she experienced her childhood. This participant felt Goodwin accurately portrayed how it was as it was happening.
- Polio: Again, I thought Goodwin was sort of flippant about how serious the threat was. As a mother, those discussions of polio attacking children in a seemingly random pattern with no one knowing how or why it was transmitted was terrifying. But again, the ladies told me as a kid, you did feel like Goodwin. You were bummed at not being able to go to the pool or being forced inside on a nice day. For the parents it was a nightmare, but for the kids, it was a nuisance. She captured it as they had felt it.
- The McCarthy Hearings: Probably the most troubling thing Goodwin brings up is living through the McCarthy hearings. She describes the games her friends all played recreating the hearings that their mothers watched on TV all day, every day for months. They had their own hearings which ended up heated and nasty, much like the ones on TV. While none of the ladies said they played games like this, they did talk about how scary the hearings were, and how they were all people were talking about at the time.
- We talked about how much easier it was to have ball players as heroes in the 1950s. First of all, Jackie Robinson was Goodwin's favorite player. A better role model would be hard to find. We talked about how the people weren't better then, but that the media ignored the bad and focused on the good. Today, the media looks hard for dirt on any famous person. We thought that it was still okay for kids to look up to sports figures, but that as parents, we needed to help guide their choices in who they look up to.
- Goodwin talks about her dual devotions to the Dodgers and the church. Many of the participants had similar experiences. People talked about meeting kids with different religions, nuns who love baseball, saying lots and lots of prayers before bed, and many of the other things she brings up.
- We also talked about how unique the 50s were in America. Things got a bit better every year for all of their families, even those who grew up poorer. This led to a discussion about the sustainability of that life style and how today's young people may be the first Americans to not do better than their parents in almost a century.
- There a strong father-daughter relationship theme to this book. Goodwin and her Dad were very close due to her mother's illness and their shared love of baseball. This topic, although not discussed specifically, came up frequently and is a huge overriding arc in the memoir.
- I ended as I always try to with having people throw out words or phrases to describe the book:
For those who want a full account of the history of the era, I would suggest the wonderful The Fifties by the late historian David Halberstram.
Many might want to read more about the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson. For those readers I would suggest the following books: Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad, Branch Rickey by Jimmy Breslin, and Forever Blue by Michael D'Antonio. Also, don't forget the aforementioned Baseball by Ken Burns and the companion book.
For those who want more memoirs about fathers and daughters, try Swing Low by Miriam Toews.
For novels, I happen to love novels which feature baseball. Here are some of my suggestions which capture the tone and feel of Goodwin's memoir:
- Snow in August by Pete Hamil (NY, baseball, religion)
- The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (previous book discussion book, Japan but baseball and scoring it are key, nostalgic and positive tone)
- Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella (the book on which Field of Dreams was based)
- Underworld by Don DeLillo (a bit more literary, but begins with "The Shot Heard Round the World" in the Dodgers-Giants game, also this novel tells the history of the second half of the 20th century and readers who also like Goodwin's award winning history titles will really enjoy Underworld)
- For more, I have this post on Baseball Reads.