Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Reading Through History: Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park (2008)

Though she is a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, just like most of the guys at the firehouse where her father used to work, Maggie can't help but be intrigued by the new guy, Jim Maine, who roots for the Giants and scores all of the games by hand. Soon, Maggie is learning to keep score as well, a process which makes her feel especially connected to her beloved Dodgers. When Jim is eventually drafted into the army and sent to Korea, Maggie shifts from scoring games to scoring the war itself, trying to discern based on what she reads in the newspapers where Jim might be and when it might be time for him to come home. When he stops answering her letters, however, Maggie begins to despair, and when she learns what has become of him, she tries everything in her power to help him recover from a terrible experience.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this story portrayed a faithful Catholic family, and I enjoyed the references early in the book to choosing confirmation names, going to Confession, and going to church. Unfortunately, though, it became clear to me as I kept reading that the author had not done enough research on the Catholic Mass prior to Vatican II. On page 51, there is the following passage:

Every week in church, Father John or one of the other priests asked for intercessions, and then everyone prayed for other people. Usually, the intercessions were for people who were sick or hurt. Or had lost their jobs, or had gone off to Korea to fight in the war.

It is true that there is now a part of the Mass where the congregation prays for various intentions like the ones named here, and though it is not usual, there are even some parishes where individuals are asked to call out the specific causes for which they would like to pray. But this detail struck me right away as a possible anachronism, because prior to Vatican II, almost none of the Mass was said in the vernacular, and there would have been no opportunity for the congregation to participate so freely. I asked in a Catholic forum whether it was at all possible that intercessions such as these would have been included in a 1950s Mass, and the comments all adamantly stated that it would definitely not have happened. (A few did suggest that perhaps this was happening outside of the Mass, at another weekly church service, but that seems like a reach. I will admit that the author did not explicitly say it was happening at Mass, but the details were vague enough that the lack of clarity is as much a problem as the error itself.)

This is disappointing to me, not just because it's an incorrect detail in an otherwise favorable depiction of my religion, but also because of how much research went into the rest of the book. The author's note talks a lot about the author's sources for information about baseball and the war, but there is no mention at all of how her depiction of Catholicism came about. It is also disconcerting that an editor did not pick up on the error, as it would have been easy enough to ask a Catholic expert, or even just someone who attended Mass during that time period, to fact-check the few specific details about the Mass that are included in the story. The failure to do so makes it seem like the author did not consider the faith-based parts of her story to be as significant as the other storylines.

Aside from this problem, the book is decent, but not great. The plot is not exactly predictable, but it feels very obvious, and there is never a moment where the reader is really caught off-guard or surprised in any way. The story is told in a very linear, almost flat fashion, and it attempts to tell a story set over the course of several baseball seasons in the space of only about 200 pages, which makes the pacing feel off and the main character's psychological development feel forced and inauthentic. The premise was interesting, but its execution was poor. It's just not the author's strongest work, and not a book I plan to revisit for any reason.

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