A long walk through a short book
As the warm weather settles in and folks think about going outdoors more and more, the Beamers settled in for a long gab about a young girl’s adventure in the woods of Maine, Stephen King country. In a surprising twist, the King of Horror held off his patented gruesome special effects and held the Beamers in suspense about whether or not his book was a Beamer book or not.
Small Package, Big Surprise?
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is one of King’s shorter novels, clocking in at a brief 224 pages. It covers a week in the life of Trisha McFarland, 9-year-old daughter of divorced parents, who follows her bickering mother and older brother on a hike along the Appalachian Trail, only to take an ill-advised comfort break. Rapidly wandering off-course, Trish spends the next 7 days progressively moving farther outside the search perimeter that her rescuers establish and moving farther away from her normal life and into a surreal landscape that seems to belong to the God of the Lost, a malevolent entity whose earthly form is that of a bear formed from a swarm of wasps.
The first point of contention for the Beamers was precisely how natural/supernatural were Trisha’s experiences. The novel is typically described as “psychological” horror, which implies that it is all in the mind of the character, not in reality. And yet, some of us believed in the God of the Lost. Most Beamers were content to assign Trisha’s experiences to her (literal) fever dreams, given her ordeal of starvation, dehydration, food poisoning, and illness. She suffers quite a bit in the novel so it is very easy to see her as an unreliable narrator, as Alan pointed out. Some Beamers could personally identify with Trisha’s misery, as Donna did, recalling her own hallucinogenic perceptions when struck by a high fever as a child.
But a few Beamers were more willing to accept that there was an external reality to some of Tricia’s stranger visions. Some physical evidence was adduced, such as the curious circle drawn in the ground around the abandoned pick-up truck in which Trisha shelters one night. Plus, the hunter who discovers Trisha in the middle of her confrontation with the God of the Lost, aka the black bear, is also unsettled by the appearance and behavior of her ursine foe. Of course, King immediately drops in that the hunter is also known to drink a bit more than he should. So, mark him unreliable, too.
In God(s) We Trust
The discussion branched off in two directions: if there is no supernatural element, should we care, either about the meaning of Trisha’s plight, or about choosing this book for our group, devoted as we are to speculative fiction. In the first instance, we had to ponder the attempt that King makes at giving Trisha a statement of faith as a prime support in her struggle to survive. As she wanders through the Maine (and New Hampshire) forests, Tricia wonders about the basis for believing in a benevolent deity. Her father favors a rather distant, transcendent figure that he calls The Subaudible (a sound that is present but unheard).
She prefers to follow her favorite ballplayer, reliever Tom Gordon, who points to the sky at the successful end of a pitching performance, thanking a more actively intervening god. And, as she is being tormented by all forms of natural dangers (stinging insects, parasite-laden water, slippery rock slopes), she conceives of the torment to which she is subjected as a malevolent spirit, the God of the Lost, that is stalking her. Her triumph at the end of the book is as much a result of her choosing to oppose the despair demanded by the God of the Lost as it is her facing down the black bear.
Our Book: Love It or Leave It!
And would this book work for us, without supernatural elements? In a provocative move, Kathy declared that anyone who did not like the book was “hopeless”. Which label was not one that some of us, like Jon, were unable to accept. We only wondered in what ways. Kathy’s declaration originated in her delight at the very tight integrity that King’s book offered, a reading experience that encapsulated all the best experiences of immersion, imagination, and emotional integrity that she seeks in a work. Others were a bit less overwhelmed, finding the novel to be a well-written adventure story, but not finding much deeper resonance than the surface of the plot.
Not that those plot points were not appreciated for the depth of the detail that King employed. Beamers who hike in the deeper woods were quite ready to acknowledge how well King was able to draw out the experiences of being disoriented and struggling to overcome terrain that looks easy but turns out to be quite challenging, as Fran related when she talked about an attempt to climb Mount Washington in New Hampshire that turned from a summer stroll to a more desperate scramble. Jon, for his part, was unmoved by any of the facets that fascinated Kathy; he preferred to follow the plot mechanics – here is a problem, how does Trish solve it? – making this work into a terrestrial analogue of The Martian for him.
If a Girl Falls in a Forest but Does Not Die …
The fact of Trisha’s survival was another issue for us. Is it a King book if no one dies? Kathy was convinced that Trisha would survive, and we could all agree that it would be tough for King to keep going if he removed his only viewpoint character midway through the narrative. But, further, she felt that Trisha had “won” her survival by being simply indomitable, never surrendering no matter what obstacles faced her, bear or God. Some of us who have read earlier King works (LIz mentioned It, I brought up Cujo) were a bit less sanguine and were prepared to have a more tragic “bottom of the ninth” (King structures his chapters as innings in a baseball game). But, even in that case, I thought it was not a failure to have Tricia die, as her spirit was the important element, and in that regard, she did succeed.
Donna pointed out the inherent irony in having Trisha be so strong in spirit, as it was exactly her unstoppable personality that also took her so far away from her searchers. But that dichotomy, the idea that what saves us is also what puts us in danger in the first place, is precisely King’s point, for me. Trisha needed to believe in herself, not quit, not despair, even when she had made a mistake. She had “icewater in her veins” at the end, just like her hero, Tom Gordon, unafraid on the mound even if the batter is able to come around and slap the pitch for a game-changing hit. So, prevail or perish, she could still win the game
Ball Game Over! Theeee Readers Win! The Readers Win!
Perhaps in trying to decide to whom we could recommend this book lay our best chance at resolving whether The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was a Beamer book or not. Some of us had definite audiences in mind. Nick was convinced that identification with the protagonist focused this book on pre-teen female readers. Most of us demurred, finding the rather stark situation and gritty reality of Tricia facing her own mortality to be a bit stronger than a pre-teen or tween could handle. None of the dissenters would even assign this book to Young Adult readers, either. But, which group of adults should read it? Alan was nonplussed as to how the publishers could market it. Donna felt that the very slight intimations of the supernatural, which she discounted, were likely added in as ploys to satisfy King fans looking for more of his signature scary monsters fiction.
But, the appeal of the book as “not the usual Stephen King” worked for some of us. Kathy thought it helped demonstrate the impressive range that King has as a writer constantly working in new genres and new approaches. I agreed, pointing out that Algis Budrys, a noted sf writer and reviewer, had designated King as the 20th century Charles Dickens, meaning a popular writer whose ability to tackle so many different forms of fiction makes him the representative for the literature of the period. In one hundred years, will Stephen King be the icon of our literature? We cannot say, but for one night, he was the icon of our discussion and the winner of high ratings from the Beamers.