Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review: Sport by Louise Fitzhugh (1979)

Sport, one of Harriet M. Welch’s best friends, lives with his dad ,who is an excellent parent, though he is not wealthy or sophisticated like Sport’s mother. Early in the story, Sport’s grandfather passes away, leaving Sport a significant sum of money. This prompts his mother to become suddenly interested in her son’s well-being and she begins trying to gain custody of Sport in place of his dad. When she doesn’t get her way right off the bat, Sport finds himself kidnapped!

I had some reservations when I first decided to read Sport, because I knew it had been rejected by Louise Fitzhugh’s publisher in her lifetime, and was only published later on, after she died. (The full story on that is written up very nicely here, on a blog called Harriet the Spy: the Unauthorized Biography.) Still, I was curious about the differences between Sport and the two titles that were so well-received while Fitzhugh was alive - Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. I have to say, I’m glad I took the chance, because of the three, this wound up being my favorite.

First and foremost, I found this book much easier to read than the other two. One of my frustrations with both Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret is the sophistication of the language, mostly because it distracts me from everything else about the stories. I could never get immersed in characters or plot in those earlier books because the language seemed to call so much attention to itself. This does not happen in Sport. Rather, this story feels like it comes from the point of view of a child, and even the atmosphere of New York City and the issues Sport has with his parents feel more relatable and contemporary.

The second thing I noticed about this book was that I actually felt some connection to Sport. I didn’t feel much of anything for Harriet or Mouse, but Sport got into my head and stayed there for a while. His struggles with adults and his confusion with sorting out the good adults from the bad ones are universal experiences, and I felt real sympathy for him as he went through those situations. I also liked seeing the diversity of his friends, and how cartoonish Harriet seems among them. In his own story, Sport becomes much more than the boy who doesn’t understand how to play town.

I do recognize, of course, that girls have loved Harriet and The Long Secret for at least three generations now, and I want to say that of course those books have merit. I just think they’re for a certain type of reader in a certain type of mood. Sport, on the other hand, is an easier read, more likely to interest boys, and focuses on issues kids still face today - perhaps even more than they did in the 1960s or 70s.

Sport is a great read-alike for books by E.L. Konigsburg and Madeleine L’Engle, who also tackle important real-life issues often against a New York City backdrop.

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