Play For A Kingdom


In this “brilliantly imagined and neatly plotted” Civil War novel (Boston Globe), two battle-scarred companies-one Union, one Confederate-embark on a series of baseball games amid the carnage at Spotsylvania. “Wonderfully conceived and eloquently executed” (Caleb Carr). Maps.
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Play for a Kingdom

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In this “brilliantly imagined and neatly plotted” Civil War novel (Boston Globe), two battle-scarred companies-one Union, one Confederate-embark on a series of baseball games amid the carnage at Spotsylvania. “Wonderfully conceived and eloquently executed” (Caleb Carr). Maps.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
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.

Santa Barbara News-Press
Dyja has created a sweeping novel of humanity on the battlefield, peopled with provocative characters. The author bring sit all vividly to life. Play for a Kingdom is that rare treat - a novel that interweaves war and play, an ironic tale told with compassion. Watch Tom Dyja.
Joseph C. Waugh
Thomas Dyja knows how to mix his ingredients. In this innovative and original first novel he blends two staples of the Americans psyche --The Civil War and baseball -- into a recipe for a very readable book. The battle scenes ring true...And the baseball scenes ring true as well. Dyja's book is admirably wrought. -- Washington Post Book World
Parade Magazine
Imaginative and suspenseful. Riveting in the vivid descriptions of the struggle at Spotsylvania. And there's a particularly affecting episode involving a company of black Union soldiers...
Kirkus Reviews
The madness of war and the passion evoked by baseball complement each other beautifully in this extraordinary first novel, a Civil War saga of a battered Brooklyn company nearing the end of its enlistment. The few survivors of the original company have endured three years of numbing bloodbaths. In the spring of 1864 they march south again, expecting battle but with fewer than three weeks to go as soldiers. Butcher's son Lyman, druggist Louie, grocer Newt, Irish street-thug Tiger, and the others soon come under Rebel fire, an engagement in which Danny, the beloved company sergeant and Lyman's best friend, is killed. With Danny goes the men's respect for authority; lawyer Burridge, their lieutenant, is young and aloof, reading Caesar's Commentaries and dreaming of post-war success. A game of catch while the company is on picket duty, however, turns memorable when a troop from Alabama steps from the woods and challenges Brooklyn to a real game. Led by the brassy Mink, whom Burridge soon realizes is an informant to the South, the Rebels win, and the stage is set for a rematch, during which Mink transmits valuable information. The second game, a Brooklyn victory, leads to three more, undertaken while the battle of Spotsylvania rages around the players. In between are soul-searing assaults and routs, a confusing battle fought through heat and rain, day and night. Each team begins to suspect that its leader is up to more than playing first base. The final meeting between the lines is a hard-fought match, made desperate by the certainty of discovery, after which a great sacrifice is necessary simply to allow the players to leave the field alive.

A sensitive, forceful, even breathtakingcommingling of play and war, daydream and nightmare, the humane and the bestial, in which the human dimensions of warfare are unforgettably evoked.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156006293
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/1/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 818,297
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Dyja
Thomas Dyja
The creator of imaginative historical fiction, Thomas Dyja's books have brilliantly drawn characters who come to life on the page. Praised by the likes of Caleb Carr, Kurt Andersen and the Washington Post Book World, Dyja is someone to watch.


Thomas Dyja, has worked as a book editor and literary agent. He is the author of the award-winning novel Play for a Kingdom, as well as Meet John Trow and The Moon in Our Hand. Dyja presently lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 31, 1962
    2. Place of Birth:
      Chicago, Illinois
    1. Education:
      B.A in English, Columbia University

Interviews & Essays

On August 12th, on AOL welcomed Thomas Dyja for an online chat. Dyja captures the madness of war and the glory of baseball in PLAY FOR A KINGDOM, which is set against the backdrop of the Civil War. The book is a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, and film rights have already been snapped up by director Ron Howard and Paramount Pictures.

OnlineHost: Hello, Thomas Dyja! Thanks for being with us. How are you tonight?

Thomas Dyja: I'm very well! Thank you for having me.

Haggartybn: Mr. Dyja, we're going to go right to the audience questions, if you don't mind.

Thomas Dyja: Sounds great.

Question: How long did it take to research PLAY FOR A KINGDOM, and what kind of research did you do?

Thomas Dyja: I would say I did a year of full-time research, and I was certainly continuing that work for the next three or four years as I wrote it. We're lucky with the Civil War to have so many primary references in the form of letters and diaries, so I certainly drew from that material, as well as the countless series of histories of the war and specific battles and specific regiments. And I also found that newspapers from the time were invaluable.

Question: What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?

Thomas Dyja: Relating to the people, the characters, and regiments in the book, I decided that the 14th Brooklyn would be the Union regiment by process of elimination with maps. I decided that the 12th Alabama would work best for the Confederate regiment. When I read their regimental history, I learned that their first duty in the war was to bury the dead of the 14th Brooklyn at the battle of Manassas. On a larger level, I was surprised to learn the complexity of the issues behind the war as well as how strong the truth is that slavery really was the ultimate cause of the war.

Question: How excited are you about the fact that Ron Howard will be directing the film adaptation of your book, and what role do you anticipate playing?

Thomas Dyja: It would be hard to be more excited. We're not sure he's directing it, but he's exactly the kind of director I dreamt of for it. My role will probably be to stand back and cheer him on, but I don't imagine I can tell him anything about making a movie. I would much rather have the movie be made than serve my own vanity.

Question: What are some of the parallels between war and sport that you explore in your novel?

Thomas Dyja: Certainly they're both about conflict and hopefully a certain kind of resolution between two sides. What I think I explore is the fact that sometimes war is not fought for resolution and sometimes games can resolve things in a much more important way. I think that rather than sports being looked at as a reflection of who we are as a country or a culture -- I think sports are an expression, just like the food we eat, our literature, our music, whatever. So through sports we do represent ourselves to the world in a less fatal way than we do in war, but in a sometimes very important way. I think even something as seemingly unimportant or something nonearth-shattering as the American hockey victory in 1980 became a cultural landmark in our history and was a focal point for the greater share of Americans. It was a huge thing. Not a value on good or bad, but it's an important thing.

Question: Would you consider yourself a gentleman with a "baseball mind"? And who do you root for?

Thomas Dyja: I certainly have a baseball mind -- my wife might quibble with calling me a gentleman. As to who I root for, I root for the Chicago Cubs, for reasons more genetic than logical. Last week I saw them get roundly spanked by the Giants.

Question: Who is Thomas Dyja when he is not writing a book?

Thomas Dyja: He is a father and husband. Which are probably tied for first on the list. After that he is a book packager. It's a bit like the book version of an independent producer.

Question: What do you think of the addition of the wild card in baseball, as well as all of the other changes going on in the sport?

Thomas Dyja: I hate them! One of the things that made baseball different from all other sports was that you had to win something to get into the playoffs. You could not win by being second best. And yes, it could be arbitrary sometimes, but rules are part of the game. Again, it's a place where we seem as a culture much more interested in maximizing profits than actually producing quality, and I think that baseball expresses this more than anything else. If the DH is used in both leagues, I will be watching a lot of Australian-rules football. A wild-card winner in baseball is like kissing your sister: It's not the same thing.

Question: What is the writing process like for you? Are you a strictly disciplined nine-to-five writer, or do you grant yourself some more leeway?

Thomas Dyja: When I'm able to focus on writing, I give myself a set number of pages to write every day. If I finished at noon, I finished at noon. If at 8pm, it was at 8pm. When it came to revisions, I did most of the work on the subway to and from the job I had taken.

Question: recently interviewed Jeff Shaara. Are you familiar with his book, GODS AND GENERALS? Another first-time writer writing historical fiction. His father, Michael, wrote THE KILLER ANGELS. Do you like to study the Civil War?

Thomas Dyja: Absolutely, I think the Shaaras have given us two seminal views of the great movers and minds of the war. My book, PLAY FOR A KINGDOM, focuses more on the ordinary, everyday men who were in the trenches. I see it as a complement, in a way, to those great books.

Question: Can anyone hit 61 home runs again?

Thomas Dyja: Yeah, I think someone will. I'm not sure that it's anybody who's playing right now, and the more time goes by and the more teams there are, the less importance I think it will have.

Question: Have you been to Gettysburg, Manassas, Spotsylvania, or any other Civil War battlegrounds? I found Gettysburg to be very starkly moving.

Thomas Dyja: I've been to all of those. And I think it's most valuable to have a sense of what happened before you go, otherwise a field, as beautiful or as moving that it is, doesn't really tell you what happened there. I finished my research by spending time in the wilderness and in Spotsylvania, which magnified my experience of the places. I was surprised by how moved I found myself, so yes, I find them starkly moving, as you do.

Question: Why "a kingdom"?

Thomas Dyja: First, because it's a particularly appropriate quote from "Henry IV": "...for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner." The resonances in that quote were very strong to me, and so despite the fact that "kingdom" is a particularly inappropriate word for referring to our democracy, it seemed too good to pass up.

Question: What came first, a love of baseball or a love of history? How about the history of baseball through war-torn eras in this country? Some of the greatest players got their first chances when the regulars went overseas. And some of the greatest served.

Thomas Dyja: I would say love of history, in a child's way, came first by growing up in Chicago surrounded by Lincolnalia. I was fascinated with the war and Lincoln and Grant as a child, and that formed much of the seeds for my interest in this book. Baseball came quickly on the heels of that, and I began hanging around the grandstand at Wrigley Field and, more often, around the edges of my couch, watching Wrigley Field on television. As to baseball during wars, the last time the Cubs were in the World Series was 1945, which tells you how war can deplete the sport. It also took some of the best years away from some of the greatest players. And it would be nice if there were a way to give back Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio some of that time, just as much as I would love to adjust certain statistics for the players who never had to face Josh Gibson and other Negro League greats.

Question: Why do you suppose the men in your book were so willing to risk being court martialed to play a game of ball?

Thomas Dyja: They have seen so much by this point that death and law mean less to them than do the needs to become men again.

Question: In your book, did you ever find yourself rooting for one team over the other?

Thomas Dyja: Having grown up in the North, it was inevitable that my sympathies would lie there. But the inevitability of the North did make me more than once happy to see the Rebels surprise the heck out of them.

Comment: I love the idea of your book. I have always been interested in the Civil War and the South. How ironic an idea that men would stop fighting to play a game. I wish it would happen today in many parts of the world.

Thomas Dyja: But the fact is, as much as these games are imagined, in 1914 on Christmas Day, something very much like it did: The Allies and the Germans had a spontaneous Christmas Armistice in which they traded gifts and played football. I've also heard just recently that in a Central American guerrilla war something very similar to this book took place.

Question: Who is your favorite author?

Thomas Dyja: I'll give you five: Nelson Algren, E. M. Forester, Graham Greene, Thomas Mann, Charles Portis -- the man who wrote TRUE GRIT.

Question: Do you have any subjects in mind for the future?

Thomas Dyja: I do. They'll definitely be historical and most likely set in Chicago, my hometown.

Question: Have you always been a student of the Civil War? Are there any other time periods of particular interest to you?

Thomas Dyja: I'm fascinated by the turn of the century, the 1890s up to the beginning of the First World War. So much of the way we've lived our lives was decided by thoughts, creations, and actions during those years. And as much as the Civil War is also a part of the Victorian era, that's another incredibly complex and somewhat maligned period of history.

Comment: The book is fantastic...I loved it!

Thomas Dyja: Thank you! Please tell others!

OnlineHost: Thomas Dyja, thank you for joining us this evening! We enjoyed having you.

Thomas Dyja: Thank you again for having me. And to everyone who logged in, hope you enjoy the book.

OnlineHost: Best of luck with your writing.
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