Fowler's 'Sweetheart Season' breaks mold, again

October 6, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

In years to come, people will throw up their hands when they try to describe the novels of a certain local writer. They'll say, "You know, it's a , it's a....Fowler novel."

And people will nod their heads and say, "Ah, yes."

That's because the recent novels of Karen Joy Fowler are a combination of many different things. You could call Fowler's 1991 novel, "Sarah Canary," a fantastical historical novel about the Washington Territory in 1873. Or you could call it a science fiction novel about an alien visitation, a first-contact novel. You'd be right on both counts.

Her latest novel, "The Sweetheart Season" (Holt, 1996) also is historical and somewhat fantastical. But it's also a baseball novel spiced up with kitchen tips and it's very, very funny. I had to hear Fowler read part of it aloud to really appreciate its humor. The section that Fowler read described a scene where Irini Doyle, the novel's heroine, is told the facts of life by her father (her mother, the more obvious choice for this delicate task, died years earlier). Irini simply refuses to believe what her father has told her.

"I just can't believe that everyone would do that. I don't believe it. I can't believe that you believe it," she tells her father, in part.

Fowler says the idea for that exchange came directly out of her experience many years ago telling her children the facts of life. Her children are now grown and in college.

"I came here in 1972 to go to graduate school at UC Davis, in political science," she said. It didn't require too much of a mental leap from political science to fiction writing since she uses political theory and history in her works.

"In 'Sarah Canary' I used quite a bit of what I'd learned about the politics of China and in 'The Sweetheart Season' I used the political theory of Gandhi to a considerable extent," she said.

You'll have to read "The Sweetheart Season" to see how the political theory of Gandhi figures into a baseball book. Let's just say that it makes sense when Fowler explains it.

"I wanted to write a women's baseball book and began looking at the Professional Women's Baseball League that existed from about 1945 to 1954. I grew up in the Midwest and knew something about the teams...but in the interim a blockbuster movie came out about the same thing.

"But I still wanted to look at the period after the war. My father went to college on the G.I. bill and became a college professor...I thought that if my father's case was representative in any way then there must have been a lot of working class women left partnerless. I just put a lot of things together. I chose a community, Magrit, Mich., where the men went off to war and didn't come back. The women worked at a breakfast cereal mill for a Betty Crocker type figure."

One of the influential women in the town is a fan of Gandhi. She tries to introduce his principals to the community.

Fowler said she also enjoyed researching the domestic history of the period. For instance, she read a lot of 1947 Redbook magazines, which seemed to emphasize a back-to-the-kitchen movement for women who had been working in manufacturing plants during the war. Suddenly the standard of a clean house skyrocketed.

"I tried to write something original and unusual," she said. "I know that there is a kind of reader who finds a real pleasure in coming to an ending they knew was ahead. A lot of formula fiction could not be as popular as it is if that was not the case but I don't understand it," she added.

Still, originality isn't necessarily a good thing in the publishing field today. "It was explained to me very simply," said Fowler. "The issue is, where are you going to put (the book) in the bookstore?" If the owners don't know where to place it, they won't buy it.

Fowler is now working on her next novel, which is set in San Francisco and covers 100 years of history, from 1860 to 1960. She will look at the communities that women were divided into: respectable women, prostitutes and the feminists. At least part of her story will focus on a woman who murdered her lover.

"Feminists came to support her at her trial even though they couldn't serve on juries or be lawyers...and they, the feminists, were more reviled than the woman on trial," she said.

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