Dorothy Mills hits a home run with baseball novel
¦ “Drawing Card” by Dorothy Seymour Mills. McFarland. 265 pages. $25 trade paperback.
Sitting down with a new book by Dorothy Mills is always a rewarding experience. In her latest, she mixes two of her areas of expertise — historical fiction and baseball history — to provide an unusual and provocative novel.
The protagonist, Annie Cardello, is a young woman of Sicilian heritage whose youthful passion is playing baseball.
Readers will be familiar with the common meaning of “drawing card,” a person or attraction that lures people to a place of entertainment. In her short career in baseball, Annie, her last name shortened to its first syllable, earned the nickname “Drawing Card,” as she was skillful and colorful enough to be a drawing card for her team and for her sport. aa Ms. Mills’ portrait of teenage Annie adroitly playing women’s baseball in a Cleveland area industrial league is vividv and exciting. The character’s enthusiasm is delightful. However, in fictional Annie’s time there was far less of a future in this kind of athletic pursuit than there is today. She had no place to go with her talent. No way, that is, that would allow her to be true to herself.
Mills The man with the power to open professional baseball up to women, Judge Landis, would not honor contracts between female athletes and the clubs and leagues he ruled. It’s easy to think that if he had ruled in favor of women players, it would have been smooth sailing for the best of them (but of course, it would not have been).
Annie takes the judge’s ruling hard. Feeling that something within her has died, she swears vengeance.
Ms. Mills carries Annie’s life forward through the years of the Great Depression and the decades that follow. She marries into an upper-crust family, primarily to be in a position to support her own family. However, her husband, John Smith, turns out to be an abuser. By the time they make a trip to her ancestral homeland of Sicily, Annie needs to be free of him — and she manatf ages to manipulate his demise.
The years that follow are ones of subservience to the influential Smith family and of mounting frustration. They are also years in which self-justification and guilt war within her.
Late revelations about money left for Annie without her knowledge only complicate her situation, as that money is owed to someone who would threaten her life and the lives of those around her to get what he wants.
Annie’s personal story is set into larger contexts in various ways. The most risky is the author’s decision to include time travel. We meet earlier incarnations of Annie’s competitive feminist spirit in ancient Greece (as Demetra), in the late Middle Ages (as Demona) and in 1898 (as Stamata, who protests the first modern Olympics). Although this is an interesting way of universalizing Annie’s dilemma, it takes attention away from Annie herself.
The other contextual materials include a brilliant portrait of Cleveland during and after the Depression,
including in particular a detailed treatment of the rising power of organized crime. Annie’s situation as a young mother in high society — as Annie Smith — is threatened by her two brothers’ connections with Italian mobsters. Yet these connections allow her some leverage that she puts to use. Ms. Mills exercises the same authority in detailing setting when she sketches a part of Annie’s life that takes place in Boston.
“Drawin Card” is much more than its subtitle, “ Baseball Novel,” suggests. With telling details and convincing emotional registers, Ms. Mills dramatizes the realities of a woman’s place while hinting at changes through the character of Isabel, Annie’s unconventional sister-inlaw and confidante.
g A This is a rich exploration of several decades of American life, with a sharp focus on women’s rights, social and economic class and crime. One thing that could have made it better: more about baseball! ¦