THE HOUSE OF DANIEL
by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
From 1913 until the 1950s, a small religious community in Benton Harbor, Michigan known as the Israelite House of David sponsored a series of barnstorming baseball teams who would travel from town to town playing exhibition matches against whatever teams they could find. These teams form the basis for Harry Turtledove’s baseball novel, The House of Daniel, set in 1934 when the Great Depression ravaged the land.
Jake Spivey is a ballplayer in Enid Oklahoma, who plays for the local Enid Eagles. He knows that baseball won’t get him anywhere in life, but he has no other prospects, being the son of a drunkard father who has long fled the state and a mother who died twenty years earlier when he was a child. Relying on friendships to get along and occasional work from Enid muscleman Big Stu, Jake accepts a commission to “send a message” to Charlie Carstairs by attacking Charlie’s brother while Jake is playing a road game. Big Stu’s information is faulty, however, and when Jake learns that Charlie’s brother is actually a sister, he realizes that he can’t go back to Enid. Fortunately, for Jake, the House of Daniel is in town playing a game when two of their players are injuring in an outfield collision. Jake is just good enough, and they are just needy enough, for them to hire him to travel with them, at least until the injured ballplayers are able to rejoin them.
The world of the House of Daniel isn’t the same as ours, appearing more similar to the worlds Turtledove created for his earlier novels The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump and Thesselonica, where magic and myth reside in a world similar to our own. As Turtledove follows Jake, now nicknamed “Snake” Spivey, and the rest of the House of Daniel from Oklahoma around the western United States, the team not only runs into the usual assortment of pitchers, managers, and rooming house operators, but also zombies, vampires, chupracabra, bigfoots (bigfeet?), and other creatures. Ball games are made more interesting by the possibility that the opposing team has hired a voodoo man (or one of their fans happens to think the team needs his help).
Although the magical aspect of the world is important, for the most part it is downplayed. Much of the book details the team’s travels through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and down the West Coast. The games they play are lovingly detailed as are the differences between the local teams, the company teams, other barnstormers, and Negro Leaguers. Readers with less of an interest in baseball may well find themselves at a loss, but for those who are baseball fans Turtledove does an excellent job of bringing the barnstorming life of the 1930s to the page.
The House of Daniel is driven mostly by the travels of Jake Spivey and presents a slice of his life as he flees retribution from Big Stu and grows accustomed to the life of a barnstorming ball player. The novel does not present much in the way of plot, but it does offer a great character study of Jake Spivey as well as a detailed look at life in small towns during the Depression. Set only eight decades ago, the isolated small town America it depicts is truly a thing of the past.
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