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the way home looks now

16 may 2016

The Way Home Looks Now is a children's book about sport, grief, immigrant experience, and gender. Peter, our narrator, is about 12 in the school year 1971-72 somewhere in greater Pittsburgh – about the same age I was that year in greater Philadelphia, actually. Being the same age as a narrator in a historical novel (and by an author, Wan-Long Shang, who is evidently a good deal younger than I am) is getting to be less of a shock all the time. I'm grateful that it still usually happens with children's novels.

Peter is eager to play Little League baseball, but there are problems, the huge one being the recent death of his older brother Nelson, a superb player whose life has vanished in one skid into a car crash. In the wake of Nelson's death, Peter's mom does nothing but stare at the TV. His younger sister Elaine is resilient as kids tend to be, and his father hasn't shut down. But life has divided into Before and After, and neither Peter nor his father seem to have guessed quite how their worst nightmare would alter the texture of life after they survived it.

Perhaps worst of all, Peter's mom had been a great baseball fan, but now doesn't follow the sport at all. She'd been a Pirate fan, but also a fan of Taiwan and its Little League heroics. The family is Chinese, by way of Taiwan and the anti-communist Republic, and their assimilation to America had come largely via baseball. Only the father, who maintains an almost stereotypical insistence on academic success at the cost of any hobbies or entertainments, resists the pull of baseball. Nelson's death has removed one great constant from his relationship with his mother: the comfort of an external spectacle that returns with the seasons and lets us talk about anything but family dynamics.

When Peter does go out for Little League, he finds himself with a strange coach: his father, who till now hasn't even much encouraged his sons to play. It turns out that "Ba" is pretty good at drill and the thinking-man's aspects of the sport. The Way Home Looks Now becomes a more conventional children's baseball story at this point. A team must come together from disparate and often antagonistic elements. A boy named Aaron makes the team, shows real pitching ability, and then turns out to be a girl named Erin: can she keep playing, or will the opponents of "women's lib," on and off the team, expel her?

Nothing that happens is too fraught or histrionic. It would be sappy for Peter's mom to suddenly just "snap out of it," and Shang is too smart and careful a writer to give us easy resolutions. The Way Home Looks Now is an entertaining and thoughtful variation on old themes in children's sport literature.

Shang, Wendy Wan-Long. The Way Home Looks Now. New York: Scholastic, 2015. PZ 7 .S52833Way