Mick Cochrane hits one out of the park in this poignant, pitch-perfect novel for young readers about a 13-year-old girl who heals her grief over father's death through her unusual gift for throwing a "butterfly" knuckleball pitch.
(A quote from Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates appears on the opening page: "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox.")
Readers won't soon forget the unmistakable voice of Molly Williams with her wise-beyond-her years observations about parents, about school, about boys, about baseball and the hole left in your life when you lose someone you love. Library shelves and publishers' catalogs are stuffed with all manner of middle-grade and Young Adult novels about all manner of serious topics, but rarely is one so beautifully crafted, so full of wise and witty turns of phrase and insights about the human condition.
Buffalonians especially can appreciate the novel's Buffalo setting, the references to Bills T-shirts, the Albright-Knox, the never-ending winter. As Molly muses in the opening paragraph: "Even in Buffalo, the snowiest, grayest place on earth, spring eventually came."
The opening chapter, titled "A Heartbreaking Dream About Toast," paints a searing portrait of the day-to-day experience of grief, of a diminished family and the gaping unmentionable wound left by unexpected death. It's both heart-rendingly sad -- and darkly funny at the same time. Molly arrives home after school to find her mother going through catalogs, the TV turned low, and "nothing that looked like dinner happening anywhere in the kitchen."
As her mother mechanically quizzes her about school, Molly produces the answers she knows her mother wants to hear. "Her mother was in some distant, ticked-off, unreachable place -- the Planet of Inexplicable Exasperation."
With her mother unavailable, Molly turns to baseball, a passion she shared with her dad. Without telling her mother (who believes she is practicing on the girls softball team), Molly tries out for the boys baseball team at school and earns a spot on the McKinley roster thanks to her knuckleball pitch. Cheered on by her best friend, Celia, and a supportive teammate, Lonnie, she finds both solace and challenge on the baseball field. Cochrane knows baseball, and Molly's musings about sport, her struggles to master the intricacies of the game and get along with her teammates all ring true.
Although the book ends on a hopeful note, here is Cochrane's elegant observation on death as the silencing of words between loved ones:
"She wondered what her dad would have said. Now she would give almost anything just to hear his voice. Like every kid, Molly had always thought her parents' words were endless, infinite ... They were drops of water in the ocean ... But the ocean only seems bottomless, the sky only appears endless. Her father's words had been finite. There had only been so many, and then, no more. There was an end, a last, and then, never again. That was what mortality meant, what she never could have imagined."
Jean Westmoore is editor of NeXt.
The Girl Who Threw Butterflies
By Mick Cochrane
Knopf Books for Young Readers
192 pages, $15.99 Ages 10 and up.