The Golem's Mighty Swing
by James Sturm (Drawn & Quarterly, 2003)

The Stars of David are a Depression-era baseball team who travel the American Midwest playing exhibition games. As a Jewish team, they risk a great deal, including a lynching -- which was only called off because of rain -- just to play a game. But those who wonder why anyone would literally risk death in order to play a game would probably never understand what the game offers in the first place: a chance to come back no matter how far down you've gone. It's about redemption as much as victory. It's a reason to get up in the morning when life doesn't have much else to offer.

Such lofty thoughts are pretty far from the mind of the story's narrator, Noah Strauss, a.k.a. the Zion Lion, whose dry observations infuse the most serious situations with a light note. Even though his team is one of the best playing in the '20s, they are desperately broke. On the brink of financial ruin, the Stars decide to contract with a promoter who encourages them to take a somewhat bizarre risk: create a golem as a gimmick in order to increase ticket sales.

The "golem" isn't a real golem like the ones made of clay by a kabbalist, just a man in a costume. The golem, in this case, is the Stars' clean-up hitter, Herschel Bloom, a.k.a. Henry Bell, the only African American on the team. Ethnicities were not a barrier for dedicated players and for teams who needed good players. African Americans, for example, played for teams that were comprised solely of Native Americans, and vice versa. They simply changed their names and "passed" in order to get around regulations.

In Henry's case, he was able to play for the Stars of David by "passing" as a "member of the lost tribe," or so Noah tells game organizers with a perfectly straight face, taking complete advantage of their ignorance about Jewish culture and history. Henry/Herschel is their best player. The game is important enough to him that he's willing to wear whatever ridiculous outfit is necessary in order to make more money. The promoter takes him at his word over Noah's strenuous objections, putting him in a golem outfit for a game between the Stars and the Putnam All-Americans.

Ticket sales double, but not for the reasons the promoter had hoped. Instead of inspiring curiosity, the possibility of actual Jewish mysticism in their midst has whipped the townspeople of Putnam into an anti-Semitic frenzy. The Stars are greeted with more hostility and bigotry than they have ever before encountered. The end result is sadly predictable.

It might seem like Sturm is stretching the narrative when tying ancient legends to American's national pastime, but baseball was a different animal back then, having an almost mystical place in the American imagination. The folk-tale parallels intersect with such ease that the golem symbolism actually works very well.

Sturm's book is not just about baseball. It's an accurate view of the fear, hatred and xenophobia that was as much a part of America's history as the highly romanticized view portrayed in the movies. Times may have been simpler back then but they were not necessarily sweeter. The childlike innocence of post-industrial America also concealed a kind of brutal ignorance. Life in America wasn't all about manifest destiny; it was also grim and bleak for anyone perceived as an outsider.

By refusing to ignore the divisions that existed back then, Sturm invests his story with a great deal of realism. The details of baseball are something Sturm obviously knows well, which lends even greater authenticity to the points he makes about the bigotry that African Americans and Jewish people suffered during a time when such prejudice was a much more open fact of life.

Like the story itself, the art is understated but captivating. Sturm's elegantly restrained black-and-white drawings, done in washed-out sepia tones, are highly effective at evoking an earlier era. The dialogue is equally sparse, with many frames completely free of verbiage, allowing the action to speak for itself.

The ending is somewhat weak. There doesn't seem to be a finish as much as a trailing off that could have used a bit more meat on its bones. Also, a good deal more could have been made of the legend of the golem; however, the story overall is still powerful, characterization being its strongest point. It's a quick read that's quite thought-provoking and insightful.

review by
Mary Harvey

22 October 2011

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