The Powers by Valerie Sayers

In 2013, Valerie Sayers published The Powers, a novel about many things, including baseball, war, and the past. Don’t confused it with The Power! To be forthcoming, Valerie was my professor at the University of Notre Dame — one of my favorites — when I was earning my MFA, but since I had not attended the university specifically to work with her, I had never read her fiction before. I was excited about this novel, as I do love baseball (Go, Tigers!). Yet, I don’t know much about the “Superman” of the novel, Joe DiMaggio (he’s not a Tiger).

The novel is set during the summer of 1941. The United States has yet to enter WWII, and everyone has baseball fever. They’re rooting for DiMaggio to break the best hitting streak in major league baseball. Refugees are looking to enter the country but no one trusts them, and the president won’t let them enter even if they have family in the country to house them. The draft has not yet been lowered to 18, but high school boys who’ve just graduated are getting ready to be asked to serve. The Powers is narrated by four characters, each with their own chapters: Joe DiMaggio (below), Babe O’Leary, Agnes O’Leary, and Joe D’Ambrosio.

Joe_DiMaggio_salutes_his_bat.jpg
“DiMaggio kisses his bat in 1941, the year he hit safely in 56 consecutive games”

For quite a while, I had a hard time connecting to the characters. We get bits about them strung along over many chapters, meaning I’m juggling the tidbits of a dozen characters in my head for about 100 pages. Eventually, things started to click around page 122. DiMaggio is a famous baseball player for the Yankees, but the country thinks he’s a hero, that he can save the refugees and the United States from war. He’s constantly drunk, smoking, and inundated by female fans. Babe O’Leary is a crotchety old Irish lady who lived in the Bronx right by Yankee stadium, which she loved, but moved into her son’s home in Brooklyn to help care for his children after his wife committed suicide. She’s mad about everything but thinks she has divine influence (“powers”) over DiMaggio that help him perform well.

Agnes O’Leary is one of those daughters, the eldest, who can’t choose between two boys, Bernie and Joe D’Ambrosio (two Joe’s in the book). She becomes interested in photography and tries to convince her estranged Italian grandfather, a mortician, to let her take pictures of dead bodies. Bernie doesn’t narrate his own chapters, but Joe does. He’s a pacifist who, at 18, has already written the government that he will not serve if drafted even though the draft doesn’t affect 18-year-old boys. He plans to go to Mexico and sneak refugees over the border while living and work with the Catholic Workers. Frequently, Joe adds into conversations “When I’m in jail . . .” He’s assuming the U.S. will enter WWII, assuming that the draft will lower to 18, and assuming that he’ll dodge the draft and be put in jail. What a load of pathos from a teenage boy.

The Powers

There are a number of smaller characters that I struggled to keep straight. When I thought I knew who they were, some clue would destroy my confidence. Was Babe married to the estranged Italian grandfather, or was that her daughter-in-law’s dad? Was Flavia the grandfather’s second or only wife? Why does middle-aged Mr. McClary randomly appear in the timeline? Real famous people are in the mix, including Dorothy Day (left) and Walker Evans.

The Powers does give readers something to think about in 2018: refugees, fear of the unfamiliar, protesting, and writing letters to politicians. At one point, Agnes asks what’s the use of writing letters; they don’t seem to do much good, she says. This is something I’ve wondered myself. Did the Women’s March “dismantl[e] systems of oppression through nonviolent resistance” like their mission statement says? Did March for Our Lives change gun laws substantially? Yes, Joe D’Ambrosio wrote letters, but is pacifism enough when an entire population is being slaughtered by Hitler?

An overall concern I had was the direction of the plot. I wasn’t sure what it was: beginning, middle, and end were unpredictable for me. Were we getting through the baseball season? Maybe going to find out about the broken family with the angry Babe and deceased mother? Would it end when Joe left for Mexico? When Agnes married Joe or Bernie or headed off to college? The four narrators had different prerogatives, meaning the overall arc was missing for me. The last chapter, titled “The Fortune-Teller” has an omniscient narrator who sums up the futures of the four narrators. I wondered if this was where the real story was. The futures of Agnes and DiMaggio especially seemed worth pursuing!

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26 comments

  1. I always like it when books have timeless things to say (e.g. in this case, about refugees, fear of the unfamiliar), and say them without preaching. You make some interesting points about the characters, too. How many characters should a book have (should there even be a limit)? How does an author make it easy to keep track of the characters? Lots of food for thought here, for which thanks.

    • I often wondered if the huge Victorian novels would have done better without so many characters, or perhaps if the authors had done “spin-off novels” with those characters in the same universe, but as the focus.

  2. I like a novel with timelines but I like them to be structured. This sounds a bit of a reading morass if you had trouble with the characters. And aimless arcs that go nowhere? Sounds frustrating to me.

  3. I enjoy a complex novel, and sports as well – what’s not to like! I sympathise with the position of the young pacifist; if your pacifism is a moral position, then you have no choice but to not fight. There is a whole body of literature on non-violent defense and civil disobedience. My problem is that my pacifism is a political decision, that most wars only serve the interests of the ruling classes. So yes, I would have fought to defend Australia from the Japanese. But that position, in 1942, that Japan was the agressor, would have to ignore the decades of provocation that came before as Britain and the US attempted to stop Japan modernising &#8211, just as we’ll have to ignore Trump’s and Israel’s provocations when we inevitably go to war with Iran.

    • I was saying to another commenter that I wonder if I would have enjoyed the novel more if I knew the time period better, but now I wonder if knowing political theory would have benefitted this reader. I got the baseball fever part; that was easy for me. I remember watched Cecil Fielder play in the 90s for the Tigers and then his son, Prince, play in the 00s.

  4. Hmm sounds a bit scattered for my liking, not to mention that whenever sports comes into a book, I literally stop caring. I just….I just hate sports, much to my husband’s disappointment. I used to bring books to NHL games when my husband would get tickets, but people would throw popcorn at me when they saw I was completely ignoring the game and reading instead LOL

  5. Sounds interesting if a bit over-complicated with all these characters. The only thing I know about Joe DiMaggio is that he was in the Simon & Garfunkel song! I’m kinda disappointed to learn he was constantly drunk. Yeah, I don’t know if letter writing and marches really achieve anything but sometimes they seem like the only thing you can do. Or tweet, of course… 😉

    • At least he seemed drunk all the time. There were always hangovers, but he also has an odd personality in the book. People knew exactly when not to talk to him before a game, sort of superstitious-like. That’s the book, though. Real life, I have no clue.

  6. Hm. This book seemed to fall a bit flat for you. I get so frustrated with books like this– I often feel the need to share the book and scream and it: “WHY AM I READING YOU?!” Too many characters, too many details, too loose a structure and plot. What made you keep reading on?
    And is this historical fiction, or some strange narrative-biography? Did these events actually occur?

  7. I’ve watched about six baseball matches and each time tried hard to follow what was going on but it defeated me. Problem is that the pitching/batting movement was so fast that you couldn’t really see what was happening.

    • Baseball games have nine innings, so it can seem long. Most people complain baseball is too slow, actually, but I love the anticipation of it. I used to watch every game the Tigers played, which is three per week at three hours per game.

  8. Interesting review! I think I’ll skip this title – I’m not overly fond of baseball (unless it’s the world series – then I’m interested!), and what I’ve read so far about Joe DiMaggio doesn’t paint him in a flattering light where I’d want to read more about him. I’ve mostly just read stuff about his later years and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe though. On a side note, when we started the book club I’m in, one of our “rules” was: No books about baseball! Guess this title’s off the potential book club read list 🙂

    • Ha! You’re club is so anti-baseball there’s a rule! I saw something online the other day that said Americans are so ego-centric they call it the WORLD Series when only American teams play. Touche, internet.

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