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jim & me
5 march 2009
Jim & Me is the eighth in Dan Gutman's Baseball Card Adventure series of children's novels. Baseball Card Adventures are some of the most amiable, and consequently the most successful and durable, examples of recent juvenile sport fiction. Joe Stoshack, the boy who can travel to and fro in time as long as he possesses a baseball card (or other photograph) contemporary with his next destination, is a likeable, self-effacing hero. Joe has learned, in the course of his many tours through the centuries, to put other people first. He often violates the prime directive of time travel by altering the past and therefore his own present. But his interventions always seem to be for the best. They are certainly for the best when he visits Jim Thorpe in the newest series offering. And here's a warning: in the rest of this review, I will tell you exactly what Joe does in 1913. If you hate spoilers, click away at once.
In previous series entries, Joe's motives for time travel have ranged from accidental to mercenary to altruistic. In Jim & Me, the altruism is second-hand. Joe learns that local bully Bobby Fuller is the great-grandson of Jim Thorpe. Bobby pleads with Joe: take me back in time so I can help my ancestor. Thorpe needs help, of course, because his 1912 Olympic medals were taken away. Can Joe and Bobby redeem Thorpe's honor via a quick trip back in time?
After some calibration of Joe's technique (an initial effort lands them in 1931, where Thorpe, reduced to being a navvy on a construction site, is beyond their help), the duo fetch up in 1913. It's still a little late to intervene in Thorpe's Olympic misadventures. But they can't find an earlier baseball card, so that's that.
In 1913, the travelers at least get to see Thorpe play baseball for the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds. They get to meet Christy Mathewson and John McGraw. As in Eric Rolfe Greenberg's classic novel The Celebrant, Matty is debonair and Muggsy is profane (though here, it's PG-rated profanity).
The problem, however, is that Thorpe, stripped of his Olympic medals and clinging to a spot on the Giants' roster, isn't playing baseball very well at all. He's batting a buck forty; he can't figure out the breaking pitch. Merely being the greatest athlete in the world gets you nowhere in the Show.
Bobby Fuller, however, has carried some vials of clear liquid and a syringe or two in his backpack all the way from 2008. Our plot comes to a head when Bobby prepares to inject his unconscious great-grandfather with the contents of the vials. OMG, it can't be . . .
. . . or can it? . . .
. . . STEROIDS?
If he can't get the gold medals back, Bobby figures that he'll juice his progenitor up to the point where Thorpe, not Babe Ruth, will set the primeval home run records. But Joe Stoshack stays Bobby's hand. He points out that no amount of cream-and-clear can give a batter the ability to hit a curveball. Convinced of the futility of his gesture, Bobby relents, and after a failed effort to drag Thorpe back to the 2000s with him (as Joe points out, that would result in Bobby never being born), Bobby leaves well enough alone and returns with Joe to the 21st century.
Well, I'm greatly relieved. I would hate to wake up tomorrow and find that Jim Thorpe was sitting on the home-run leaderboards with 715. Certain things underpin my existence, and the purity of baseball statistics is real near the top of the list.
As a mild temperance tale, Jim & Me is harmless. I don't mean to land on it with both feet. But it begs the question: even if pumping Jim Thorpe full of 'roids is a losing proposition, why don't the lads seek out the young Babe Ruth and try their wares on him? The Babe had no trouble waiting out curveballs. If the anti-steroid argument here is one from futility, doesn't that leave open the possibility that steroids are properly consumed by those who can measure off-speed pitches to begin with?
I don't think that is the message that we want middle-school sluggers to hear, but I don't think it's Dan Gutman's message either. I think Jim & Me is just ever-so-slightly random. Having visited several white guys, a couple of African-Americans, and a woman, it's time for Joe Stoshack to broaden his multicultural creds by visiting the greatest of all Indian athletes. (And listening to him come up with random Native wisdom like :"When you run . . . you draw strength from the four directions – north, south, east, and west" .) And since BALCO was much in the news as Gutman was writing this Adventure, what better way of seizing on the topicality of steroids than to inject some of them into the story?
Gutman, Dan. Jim & Me: A baseball card adventure. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.