Sunday, December 16, 2007

Saddlebums Review: Camp Ford by Johnny D. Boggs

Win MacNaughton is an aging—99 years old—former baseball player, umpire, and coach, who is invited to attend the 1946 World Series by The Sporting News. A reporter asks him how he thinks the two participating teams—the Red Sox and the Cardinals—compare to the best team he has ever seen. Win doesn’t hesitate, and quickly names two teams.

‘Easy’ I said. “Mr. Lincoln’s Hirelings and the Ford City Gallinippers. Played one game at Camp Ford, Texas.

The reporter gave Win a confused look and walked away. He didn’t mention either of the teams in the newspaper the next day, and Win MacNaughton spends the rest of Johnny D. Boggs’ Camp Ford explaining his answer. He begins his story as a boy in Rhode Island where he is introduced to the game that would shape his life. His moves with his parents down to Jacksboro, Texas, where his father gets involved with the anti-slavery movement, and then when the Civil War breaks out, his parents take him back North where, in 1863 he joins the 3rd Rhode Island Cavalry.

It isn’t long before Win finds himself a prisoner of war at Camp Ford, Texas. And life in that place is hard, cruel, and surprisingly filled with talk and love of baseball—even the Southerners are learning the game.

Camp Ford won the Spur Award for best novel in 2005, and it is the best Western novel I have read in a long time. Mr. Boggs adroitly weaves two storylines—the aged Win MacNaughton watching the 1946 World Series in St. Louis, and Win MacNaughton as a boy growing up in a changing and violent time with the new game of baseball. The prisoner of war scenes are harsh and realistic with vivid descriptions of the place, the characters, and, most importantly, the inner thoughts of MacNaughton as he tries to survive captivity.

The characters are richly created—they populate the novel with a sincerity and richness that is often lacking in genre works. The ideals of friendship, love, and hate are explored, and Mr. Boggs leaves just enough ambiguity in the narrative to allow the reader to judge the actions of the characters. The storyline is refreshing and original—it has just the right mixture of baseball folklore and Civil War history to satisfy both readers of historical fiction, and anyone who enjoys the sport.

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