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Students of Ken Burns and his work can tell you all about the dovetailing histories of the Civil War and the sport of baseball. They'll rattle off the legend of Abner Doubleday serving as an officer for the Union, give you compelling anecdotes about Union soldiers from New York City — where the game was most popular — who carried their pastime with them wherever they traveled. Some might even argue that baseball's abiding popularity is due, in good part, to the Civil War itself. Out of this fascinating and unlikely coincidence in our nation's history, Tom Dyja's sweeping first novel draws its marvelous strength and energy. The North meets the South on both the battlefield and the ball field in Play for a Kingdom, and the high themes of the novel — friendship, valor, betrayal, and deceit — come to life in both war and baseball alike. It is early May, 1864, and while on picket duty in the battle-shaken woods of Virginia, an exhausted company of infantrymen — Company L, the Brooklyn 14th — stumbles upon an irresistible clearing of clean grass and sunlight. Some of the men sit and eat their hardtack, some fall right to sleep beside the trees, and the rest of the men lay down their guns, dig out a ball from a knapsack and a bat from a bedroll, and find consolation and relief from fighting in the gentleman's pastime that reminds them most keenly of home: baseball.
Dyja conveys in detail the idyll of baseball against the horror of combat, and the solace the men find in a game of catch is palpable. After all, a ball field is a world within the world,asLyman Alder knows, 'with its own rules related in some ways to the rules of life, but a world that offered immediate rewards and penalties.' Lyman, a butcher from Brooklyn who has carried the ball clean and white in his knapsack through the horrors of Gettysburg and the wilderness, believes he is on firm ground while he and his friends lob the baseball back and forth in the light. But after he fires a hard fastball over to Newt Fry, a Southern drawl snaps the beautiful spell of the afternoon. 'Do you call that a speedball?" the voice asks from the woods. So begins a compelling series of five magical ball games between the North and South, each contest more dangerous than the last. Not only is fraternization with the enemy punishable by court martial, but the emotions of the battlefield often carry over to the games, just as the friendships from the games are brought into battle. Despite the soldiers' better judgment, the games continue, the men of Brooklyn versus Alabama, the two companies meeting, ultimately, for their honor, their lives, and the fate of their armies and nation. In the week of skirmishes leading to the brutality that became the bloody battle at the Spotsylvania, Dyja guides the Yanks and Rebs play-by-play through the contests, which have been arranged so that the commander of the Union company may exchange vital information with a Confederate spy.
What Play for a Kingdom accomplishes so fully is not so much the measured blending of war, baseball, and spy novel — a feat that Dyja pulls off without being overly insistent on parallels or falling into the easy trap of heavy-handed symbolism — but rather the more subtle, storyteller's feat of bringing an ambitious cast of characters to life on the page. In the process, the vigorously plotted story unfolds and traces just who these characters really are to one another and to themselves.
By equally revealing turns, we watch the men of the Brooklyn 14th perform under the barbarism of war, as well as the stresses of sport. We see Lyman rise to lead the company. We witness the old alliances and animosities carried over from Brooklyn, see them played out in battle and games. We see racists from the North reveal themselves, and we find understanding abolitionists from the South fighting the North for reasons the Union men hardly seemed to consider before. And all the while, we witness the men as they desperately try to regain their humanity within the innings, the values, and the coffee and newspapers they share before meeting again in Spotsylvania.
In a particularly affecting episode near the end of the book, an emotionally shattered Newt Fry is wounded and rushed to a makeshift field hospital. When his wound is deemed not serious, in quick order, he is pressed into service as a surgeon's assistant. The gruesome scenes the wincing Fry sees in the clinic are nothing short of a descent into hell; the carnage — from the clamping of blood vessels to the cauterizing of the amputated, as evidenced by the telltale "enormous hiss and piecing scream" as hot iron seals the wounds — proves enough to bring Newt a spiritual rebirth, which we follow. Most of all, however, we witness the lasting, humanizing effect of the games upon the soldiers in Play for a Kingdom. Remarkably, "those of Company L not swamped yet by fatigue finally began talking to each other again, lifted by a shared subject beyond death, cowardice, and the ineptitude of their officers."
By the end of Spotsylvania, Dyja's novel is as much about the sport of baseball and the savagery of the Civil War as it is about a clutch of men who share their love of home and respect for honor.