Book Review: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

My copy of the book.

What if Job was a Boston Red Sox fan, and instead of a 70-year-old wealthy man with a big family and material comforts, he was a 9-year-old girl experiencing the pain of parental divorce? That is the basic premise of Stephen King’s quirky, short 1999 novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, part ode to the Red Sox and baseball, and part his usual ruminations about why God appears to permit evil.

Our titular character, Trisha, goes on a walk with her mother and brother in the Maine-New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Trail one day. It’s meant to be a family outing, a way to bond after the divorce. Instead, her older brother, Pete, is always a malcontent with such outings, and him and the mother argue incessantly. So much so, that they don’t notice when Trisha goes off the path to pee. And then they don’t notice, still, for like two hours thereafter. And then, before you know it, Trisha has walked dozens of miles nearly to the Canadian border and spent about eight days in the wilderness.

One of my top fears as a child was getting lost while with my parents. There were times even just going to the grocery store with my mother — those big boxy grocery stores — where I got lost, and was terrified. Now, plop me on the Appalachian Trail. I wouldn’t last as long as Trisha did here. Fortunately for Trisha, she has some uh, wood smarts, imparted upon her by her father, mother, and her grandmother in “sayings” she evokes from time to time — in one rah rah moment for herself, she says she’s going to make it out of these woods so she can have her own “sayings” — and the saving grace of the Boston Red Sox, and their near-unstoppable closer, Tom Gordon. Gordon isn’t just someone Trisha loves through her relationship with her dad, nor is he just inspiration to keep going, but he’s also the stand-in for the conversation about God. Because after Gordon wins a game, he points to the sky, as if thanking God. In one moment of inquiry with Gordon in her imagination, Trisha asks him about God, and Gordon said God comes in at the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and the count full. In other words, God, like with Job, allows (if you want to use that word) you to go through trials and tribulations until stepping in at the end.

And Trisha goes through a lot! The attacks she suffers from the pesky bugs, from mosquitos to wasps, was enough to make me shudder. I hate the thought of mosquito bites and itchy skin. The mosquitos even go to town on her eyelids while she’s sleeping, which grossed me out; her eye is swollen thereafter. She tries using mud to abate the itch, and to guard against further encroachments. She falls down a few times, banging her neck and shoulder. She deals with terrible swamps to wade through. And worst of all, she experiences terrible hunger, thirst, and the resulting vomiting and diarrhea from eating presumably bad berries and/or drinking stream water. At one point, she even eats a fish raw!

Before these tribulations showed up in earnest, I was thinking the book reminded me of one of my favorite books as a child, Gary Paulsen’s 1986 novel, Hatchet. Like Trisha, Brian is a young kid (although he has her by four years!) of divorced parents who winds up in the middle of the woods and needs to survive on his own. Heck, Brian even had the advantage of a hatchet, whereas Trisha made due with a sharp rock and her poncho (to catch the fish)! Also like the Hatchet, though, King’s structure is similar from a plot perspective: We get some asides about the search for Trisha — including the rather convenient trope of Trisha turning on her Walkman radio and hearing that they are searching for her — including the police focused on a child molester, and her parents wondering if it was time to do a memorial service. However, the book is largely told through Trisha’s eyes, and done in a fun way: Spread across the “innings” of a baseball game, including the seventh inning stretch, pregame and postgame.

Trisha’s most important possession, her “hatchet,” if you will, is her still workable Walkman radio, which she uses to listen to the Red Sox and Gordon when he comes in to close. His next “save” is her being saved. It is her salvation and hope. But because this is a Job story, even that is taken away from her when the batteries die. The batteries died because she left the Walkman on while she slept, and she fell into such a sleep because she was suffering from a hacking, wheezing, blood-coughing up pneumonia at that point. Job, thy name is Trisha.

This also wouldn’t be a King novel if he didn’t hint that the God of the Lost, as he calls it, comprised of swarming wasps, is coming to get her, always looming in the shadows watching her. Instead, for her final trial, it turns out to be a bear. Taking everything she has learned from her parents and Gordon, and probably an unhealthy dose of delirium to hold back the fear, Trisha stays completely still and then “winds up” like Gordon for her closing pitch and hurls her dead Walkman batteries at the bear, just as some local shoots the bear in the ear.

I’m a sucker for a survival story, whether Hatchet, science fiction with Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, The Martian, or a real life story, such as Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book, Into the Wild, about Christopher McCandless. Trisha was a fun character to root for because she’s only 9-years-old, but also because, even though I’m not a baseball guy, it was a unique set-up to have that be her saving grace. If survival books are your bag, and if you want something a bit different by King — really, a whole lot different compared to my prior two reads, Carrie and Pet Sematary — then I would recommend this one.

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