Sports Fiction and History
John Grisham’s Calico Joe
When writing fiction set in a historical time and place, a writer must decide how much truth to mix in with the fiction. In his new baseball novel, blockbuster author John Grisham settles this issue with an unusual choice. Calico Joe tells the story of a quite fictional Joe Castle, a 1973 Chicago Cubs rookie who simultaneously bursts onto the major league scene and into the record books. Joe dominates the sports world for two glorious months, but then a beanball thrown by New York Mets pitcher Warren Tracy, the quite fictional father of the story’s first-person narrator, cuts short Joe’s sensational debut. The tale’s biggest conflict takes place decades later as the narrator attempts to facilitate a reconciliation between his dying father and Joe, and all these events take place in the land of fiction. What’s interesting, however, is how tightly Grisham weaves his story around the actual events of 1973.
In sports fiction, it’s not unusual for real-life sports heroes to enter the story. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, Steven Pressfield arranges a 36-hole golf match between his invented protagonist Rannulph Junah, Bobby Jones, and Walter Hagen. The latter two were merely the most heralded golfers of the 20’s and 30’s. However, the setting of Krewe Island is entirely fictional, and the story’s time frame, a few days in May of 1931, is so short that Pressfield doesn’t blend in other historical events. In fact, I don’t believe the novel refers to any of 1931’s professional golf tournaments. Of course, Pressfield expertly describes the general ambiance of the American South in 1931, and he accurately informs readers about the prior celebrated exploits of Jones and Hagen. But that’s about as far as it goes.
Other authors omit the sports heroes, but they still include some real-life teams. For example Bernard Malamud’s The Natural follows Roy Hobbs as he leads the New York Knights out of baseball obscurity in 1939. In this case, the whole Knights team is pure fiction, but they still play in the National League against the likes of the Cardinals, Pirates, and Dodgers. However, Malamud does not try to correlate his story with the actual major league happenings of 1939. In this regard my childhood favorite, Allison and Hill’s The Kid Who Batted 1.000, is similar to The Natural.
Back to Calico Joe, where it turns out the only non–historical names for baseball players are. . . Joe Castle and Warren Tracy. Grisham spins in such notable real-life Cubs as Ferguson Jenkins, Rick Reuschel, Don Kessinger, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and Rick Monday. The list of Mets players includes Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Rusty Staub, manager Yogi Berra, and the great Willy Mays, who ended his famed Say Hey career after the ’73 World Series. In fact, Grisham can’t resist allowing his narrator a little one-on-one time with Mays. Other star players such as Lou Brock, Willie Stargell, Mickey Mantle, and Bobby Bonds also nab spots in Grisham’s narrative.
And it’s not only the names of the players that Grisham plucks from the baseball history books. His description of the 1973 season, although fictionalized enough to make way for Joe Castle’s heroics and Warren Tracy’s ill humor, closely shadows what really happened in 1973. In late April of that year, the Cubs jumped into first place, and they stayed there until late July when a late season slump dampened their hopes. Though Grisham doesn’t follow these dates precisely, Calico Joe‘s 1973 Cubs take a very similar journey. And, exactly as in the real 1973, Grisham’s season ends with the Oakland A’s topping the New York Mets in a seven-game World Series.
So here’s my question. When creating historical fiction, just how accurate do most readers want the narrative to be? I suspect most of Calico Joe‘s readers won’t know or care about the real 1973 baseball season. However, baseball fan that I am, Grisham’s almost-accurate depiction, warped only by the introduction of Joe Castle and Warren Tracy, actually disrupted my fictive dream. As I listened to the audio book, my mind kept darting between history and fiction, and I couldn’t immerse myself in the story. As soon as a real-life name popped up, my brain shouted No! It didn’t happen this way!. I have the same problem when I read any of the various fictionalized versions of the assassination of JFK.
I prefer the approach of Malamud and Pressfield, where, even if a real-life name or team is thrown into the story, the account doesn’t too closely rub up against actual events. Then I find it much easier to let my mind drift along with the narrative. In my own novel, The Victors Club, I allude to a few real-life folks, but, except for one, they only get brief mentions. Babe Zaharias, the hero of my protgonist, is the one prominent historical figure in my book, and I detail some of her most impressive golf achievements. However, I don’t imitate Grisham’s treatment of the 1973 baseball season. In fact, Zaharias has been dead a long time before my novel’s events take place.
As you can see, my bias is to let fiction remain, well, fictional. However, I’d love to learn what others think. If it turns out that most readers disagree with me, then perhaps I should reconsider how I write my little yarns. So, what do you think? Just how much historical truth do you like sprinkled into the fiction you read? As always, I look forward to your comments.