What has yet to be selected for the Freshman Common Reader is fiction. In a spirit of helpful team play, I have submitted several titles (or authors) over the years, but none has actually been chosen. In a fit of madness, however, your co-editors have asked me to suggest one to you that was among my unsuccessful proposed titles. I refer to Hanging Curve (1999) by Troy Soos. A household name, indeed. Of course! I hear you say. (No, not that Seuss.) And yet, Hanging Curve is fiction; more specifically, it is a murder mystery. So, what on earth – a murder mystery? And who the heck is Troy Soos?
Allow me to explain.
Certain Selection Criteria
To become the Freshman Common Reader, the book must be selected by a committee, which works under specific guidelines. These include:
Troy Soos (who does meet the committee criterion of still being alive) wrote a series of murder mysteries, mainly in the late 1990s, about baseball in the second decade of the last century. (Oh, baseball, we should have known! you scoff. But read on.) The protagonist is indeed a baseball player, a journeyman infielder named Mickey Rawlings. (Soos also wrote a non-fiction study, Before the Curse: The Glory Days of New England Baseball, 1858-1918, but leave that alone.) Our character, Mickey Rawlings, is a fair player, but expendable enough to be traded frequently to a team in a different city.
This means that each novel features a different city of the era, with all the fascinating background of places and customs that no longer exist after 100 years. In Hanging Curve, it is 1922 and Rawlings is playing for the St. Louis Browns. In the shadow of the race riots of 1917, baseball has issued a ban against playing mixed games among White and Negro teams, but Rawlings and some others participate in an illegal game against the St. Louis Cubs, a Negro team from East St. Louis. The Negro pitcher and best player in that game is soon killed in a lynching instigated by the Ku Klux Klan, and Rawlings sets out to solve the murder.
The selected books and their authors have often been exceptional. Examples include:
The course of his investigation soon takes him to Indianapolis, the Indianapolis of 1922, which was also a hotbed of the KKK at the time. “Through the course of his investigation, Mickey learns plenty about the racial conflict that divides [St. Louis], and he also finds that certain unsavory individuals are capable of using society's ills for their own gain. … He is growing as a character while he ages as a ballplayer, and his romance with former actress Margie is sweet by modern standards yet scandalous for its time. Soos delivers a richly atmospheric journey through time with Rawlings serving as an engaging guide” (quoted from Amazon.com). We make our way through 1922 Indianapolis, with its sights and sites, it streets and neighborhoods, while confronting social issues of continuing importance.
Background on the Program:
Each year, the book becomes the focus for a series of fall programs, and for some years was integrated into a set of “connected” classes, where students would continue the discussion engage in assignments about the book or themes that emerged from the book. This award-winning first-year experience program is called Freshman Connections. Part of that program is a post-convocation discussion of the book, before classes have started, for an hour among incoming freshmen and a Ball State volunteer, who could be a faculty member, a staff member, an upper-division student, or a community member. Along with various Honors faculty and a visible number of Honors Peer Mentors, I (Dr. Ruebel) have participated in this discussion almost every year for 15 years.
With this and Murder at Wrigley Field, set amid the anti-German backlash of World War I, Soos became increasingly engaged in social issues and has since moved away from baseball to other historical fiction, exploring issues such as immigration (Ellis Island in 1892) and political corruption. Doubtless these are meatier. But I think for Ball State freshmen, Hanging Curve would have been an entertaining, educational, and rewarding experience.
Give it a try. It's still a worthy read.