The House of Daniel
The tagline on the cover says “A Novel of Wild Magic, the Great Depression and Semipro Ball”. Turtledove used to be one of my favorite authors because he could twist history around like nobody’s business and make it believable, thrilling and even heart wrenching at times. I actually cried at the end of one of his books about that time aliens invaded the Earth during WWII. I’m not sure why I stopped reading this author, except maybe I couldn’t afford his very long and expensive series that came out one after another.
The House of Daniel is a Christian-like church that sponsors a barnstorming baseball team during the depths of the Great Depression. They’re known for their great play and the long hair and beards they sport as part of their persona. Their timing is impeccable for Jack Spivey, an Okie who plays a decent center field who ends up on the wheezy team bus just as he needed a way to get out of town. The ten dollars a game he gets playing a new team every day in a different town is more money than he’s ever made.
This is an intensely baseball centered novel. Once Jack is on the bus it’s a description of the route they take, a brief tour of whatever small town or one stoplight berg they’re in that day, what the other team’s name is and what their logo and uniform look like, where the ball field of the day is and what kind of infield and the dimensions of the outfield. Then there is a brief description of the game and what the managers say to each other afterward. For game after game. After game. Then they’re at the big tournament in Denver, which is cut short by the zombie riots (that rumor has it was instigated by the vampires).
This is baseball in a world in which you have to keep an eye out for a conjure man working to turn your hits into bloopers and your fielding into error fests, where salamanders light up the night games and ushers use will-o-the-wisps to guide patrons to their seats in the dark. In the northwest you might see a couple of sasquatch in the stands and the zoo might have a baby dragon on display. Between games you might get a CC message from somewhere (Consolidated Crystal). If this sounds a lot like the world of The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump I would have to agree with you. That Turtledove book is set in a very similar world in 1993 where a government worker might take his handheld spell checker to the local spell dump to monitor magic waste. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, unlike The House of Daniel.
Mostly, though, this is a baseball book. Lots of it. If that doesn’t bother you, then the unvarnished racial talk might be too much. Turtledove is one of the old-school old-white-men science fiction writers who will unabashedly speak with the voice of a person of the 1930s for whom even playing baseball on the same field as a person of color became a life changing challenge. The casual use of old fashioned names for women, sex workers, and people of color is not something I’m used to seeing anymore and I couldn’t really decide how I felt about it. That is the way it used to be back then, but it’s not the way we’ve become accustomed to talking about it in this age.
Turtledove has a very large bibliography of alternate history novels and series, ranging in dates from the Byzantine empire to the far future of humankind in the far reaches of space. The House of Daniel is an oddball one off like Toxic Spell Dump, but not as funny. This is a serious book set in a grim period of US history that takes an unflinching look at race relations through the lens of baseball. Lots and lots and lots of baseball. I played for a long time so I got the ball talk and had a real feel for the games, and the historian in me enjoyed the old fashioned baseball lingo. Even so, I began to find the format of one game after another a little tedious, much like the players felt about playing one game after another.
I do recommend this book because it’s so well written and will surprise you when it slips effortlessly out of our world into a world of chupacabras and werewolves. If you don’t mind being immersed fully into the world of sweaty uniforms and boring bus rides, you will likely enjoy this book.