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the girl who threw butterflies

3 march 2009

Juvenile baseball fictions of the 21st century come rooted in formulas that were pioneered in the 19th century. Our protagonist, an outsider, wants to break into an established team and play ball. The protagonist is talented but lacks confidence on and off the field. Expected enemies are met; unexpected friends materialize. A coach gives wise and temperate guidance. After some setbacks, the team heads into a Big Game. Despite their initial differences, the newly-forged teammates come together to earn a victory. Our protagonist is the game's hero, and victory is usually due more to acquired maturity and baseball smarts than to any prodigies of pitching or slugging.

The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane (author of the notable adult baseball novel Sport) follows that formula exactly, but makes it refreshing and alive for the year 2009. Molly Williams is the protagonist, a middle-school softball player of some note. Her father has died in the fall of her eighth-grade year. Her mother has become detached. Molly resolves to try out for the school baseball team. Her hopes ride on the knuckleball her late father taught her.

Elements of the formula shift into place under Cochrane's direction. A smug shortstop resents Molly's intrusion into his male domain. Coach Morales, on the other hand, treats "Williams" like any other player. Since a knuckleball pitcher needs a "personal catcher" unafraid to handle the floater, Molly enlists the help of Lonnie, a dreamy draughtsman whose one baseball skill is his tolerance for bruises.

Will they win the Big Game? I'm rooting for them, at any rate. But the journey, not the destination, is the key to strong sport fiction. The Girl Who Threw Butterflies is notable for several stops along the way. Cochrane evokes the suburban Buffalo setting with deft touches, making it integral to the story without losing his way in traveloguey exposition. He gives Molly a wisecracking foil in the person of her best friend, Celia.

Cochrane tells the story in third person – well, there are only three persons to choose from, and second is not used very often. But the perspective, limited to Molly but not in her voice, is very skillfully handled. There is a thin line in literature for "young readers" (the young end of the Young Adult range) between too much inner voice and too little. Too much, and you risk populating the mental life of a 13-year-old with insights beyond her years. Too little, and you risk the condescension of adult omniscience. Cochrane steers between these shoals with great assurance.

The death of Molly's father is another potential flaw that Cochrane finesses well. Young Adult and "young reader" fiction over-represent the death of parents; they are an actuarial nightmare for whoever writes life insurance on the fortyish progenitors of their characters. I have usually assumed that such a proliferation of deaths is a way to talk about the prevalence of divorce without always talking literally about divorce. But in The Girl Who Threw Butterflies, Molly's dad isn't just shunted out of the way into Eternity. Death itself is something that the novel must process and deal with – death, and the possibility of suicide. (That the novel touches on these issues without centering itself on them makes it a "young-reader," or "middle-grade" book, not a full YA fiction.)

Death is not the only way to lose a parent in Cochrane's Buffalo, for instance. Molly's catcher Lonnie's parents really have divorced, and when his dad shows up at the Big Game "wearing a pink polo shirt, holding a baby on his chest in a Snugli," he looks "like the poster boy for midlife crisis" (140-141). By counterpoint, the death of Molly's father seems all the more real, and his continuing presence in Molly's memory and willpower the more authentic.

Baseball novels for all ages also suffer from a family weakness: the temptation to create nine (or more) wacky individual characters, thus burying the story in exposition and character notes. Cochrane does well skirting this obstacle, too. Many of Molly's teammates are no more than names, and others are sketched in with spare but convincing details (the tall one, the fast one, the two African-Americans). The team becomes the matrix for three characters – protagonist pitcher, blocking-character shortstop, sidekick catcher – who thereby stand out all the more effectively from their social context. You would think this was an easy effect to achieve, but many a recent juvenile baseball novel, even many a recent short story (their authors will be nameless here) makes the mistake of trying to give us nine separate character sketches in a dishwater-dull expository chapter. By contrast, Cochrane lets his characters emerge into view when they want to, and when Molly needs them to.

I'm 49 years old, and I raced through this book in one sitting. I have to think I am still enough of a child reader at heart that my sensibilities might serve as a guide to what's good for a young audience. And for my money, The Girl Who Threw Butterflies is very good indeed.

Cochrane, Mick. The Girl Who Threw Butterflies. New York: Knopf, 2009.

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