Book Reviews

Book Review – The House of Daniel: A Novel of Wild Magic, the Great Depression, and Semipro Ball by Harry Turtledove

Short version: If you’re a fan of science fiction, the “paranormal”, and baseball, you’ll love this book.

I follow author Harry Turtledove on Twitter, and have, for the most part, enjoyed his take on alternate history. That’s a genre where an author selects a point in history and imagines what would happen if something was different, such as “what if the Confederacy won the Civil War?” He made this tweet in January and since I love baseball, I had to read it.

The setting is pretty familiar. Jack Spivey is getting by in Enid, Oklahoma. It’s the Great Depression and there’s not much work to be found, so he occasionally does work for a local gangster, “Big Stu.” He also plays baseball on the town team. Back in the day, many towns had their own teams and would play other nearby towns or barnstorming teams that came around. One of the jobs Big Stu sends him on doesn’t sit right with Jack, and he can’t go back to Enid after not doing what Big Stu wanted him to do. The barnstorming baseball team The House of Daniel is in town, and he manages to land a spot with them when two of their outfielders are seriously injured in a collision. The House of Daniel is renowned for their ability to play baseball, and are in demand to play against local teams. Their manager, Harv, has his eye on the prize of a tournament that’s going to take place in Denver as well.

Oh, and there are vampires. And werewolves. And zombies.

The zombies are part of the cause of the Depression since they’ve somehow been trained to perform repetitive, menial tasks that living humans used to do. If they’re dead already, you can’t work them to death, right?

Anyway, Jack gets on the bus with The House of Daniel and starts traveling across the southwest and western United States, visiting numerous towns and playing local teams. The story is told from Jack’s perspective. He gives us details about the towns, their ballparks, and their teams. Jack also grows as a human being. Having spent his entire life in Enid, he’s got some rather provincial views that are challenged once he’s out in the world. It was fun to see his character evolve throughout the book.

If you’re not a baseball fan, The House of Daniel will be lost on you. It’s a book about small-town baseball during the Great Depression, and that is the bulk of the story. There are a few side stories, but it centers mostly on baseball. A couple of times a vampire appears and tries to entice Jack or someone else to come with them and get bitten. They make note of when the full moon is and make sure they are inside when it gets dark. Traveling through Oregon, they meet a variety of Big Foot creatures who seem to be the same as humans, just very hairy and big. The zombies stage an uprising that nearly gets them killed.

Overall, though, it’s about baseball. There are a lot of details about various small-town ballparks, which I am sure is what Turtledove had fun researching. I imagine that had to be a fun thing to do at the time, and I’ve often lamented that I have to travel more than an hour even to see a minor league game. Having a town team that would play barnstorming teams sounds like fun.

The main problem I had with it was that I kept waiting for something to happen. Sure, there was the Great Zombie Uprising at one point in the book, and Big Stu hasn’t exactly forgotten that Jack took off without doing what he agreed to do, but that was about it for action. Everything else was just Jack detailing his travels from town to town with The House of Daniel team. The magic and magical creatures that exist are normal to him, so he doesn’t even talk much about them except when something happens that involves them, such as some teams using a conjure man to help them win games. There was no real story, just Jack traveling with the team until he knew it was time to quit. Once you know why Jack doesn’t follow through on his job for Bug Stu, it foreshadows why he eventually quits the team.

There are a few familiar faces couched in different names. Satchel Paige makes an appearance with a variance on his name. At one point the encounter “the kid” who is a young Ted Williams. I am sure there were others in the players he encounters, but those were the two I picked up on.

I wouldn’t recommend The House of Daniel unless you are a really big baseball fan and interested in what it was like to be a barnstormer back in the day. I enjoyed it a lot and appreciate the work that went into getting the information about the variety of ballparks each town had back in the day. If you’re not into baseball, I doubt you can appreciate the book. Even casual baseball fans probably won’t enjoy this as much as I did.