This is my book review of Alfred Slote’s Finding Buck McHenry. I wrote this back in 2008. I like best my last paragraph here.
Most of us see life as a search for meaning, a realization of dreams, and a journey to self-completion. Gifted with innocence and armed with enthusiasm, we pipeline our vision toward a masterplanned future. But in the event of downfall, we usually tend to forget that for as long as we are alive, every point in our life is a starting point. Nothing is too late to do or to change until we lie on our death bed. This is one of the biggest lessons that I learned from my favorite childhood book, Finding Buck McHenry.
Alfred Slote specifically wrote Finding Buck McHenry for youngsters aged 8 to 12 but his novel continues to own me until now in my mid-20s. The story begins with eleven-year old Jason getting cut from his baseball team. He was tasked to form a new team with other “reject” players from different teams in the Little League.
Jason was emotional at first but being a baseball card collector, he found refuge in peeking at new cards. He was even delighted when he came across a rare Buck McHenry card. The card says that McHenry was a known pitcher decades ago. He won over 90 games in three seasons but quitted early from baseball and worked as a school janitor after committing unlawful offenses. It could have been just another card for Jason had he not meet Mr. Mack Henry, the old custodian in his previous school.
Mr. Henry once volunteered to teach Jason an effective baseball trick but Jason got more interested in the custodian’s impressive firsthand knowledge about legendary baseball players. Since he found the McHenry card, he could not help but preclude that the custodian and the famous pitcher were the same person. The card has the clues, including the state where McHenry worked. The name alteration from Buck McHenry to Mack Henry could be attributed to his “scrapes with the law.”
For Jason, everything linking the two was implied but never spelled out. So he pursued Mr. Henry to be his new team’s coach.
Jason couldn’t get Mr. Henry to confess his “McHenry” past at first. But the custodian later gave a condition: if his grandson would play in the team, he would coach it and admit the truth. The next things happened to Jason’s favor.
The plot reminded me of my childhood feats and misadventures, carefree curiosity, and the luxury of making things happen as a prize for persistence. I somehow see myself through the pages of the book playing with the paradoxes and compromises of a child’s life.
Upon Jason’s notice, the new league director who is also a sportscaster quickly set up for a televised game and interview with Mr. Henry, knowing that uncovering an old famous player would be a scoop. But Jason could not recruit any other players since Mr. Henry did not want others to know beforehand about him coaching the team. In the end, there were only three in the new team: the custodian’s grandson, the sportscaster’s daughter, and Jason.
During the interview, Mr. Henry hesitantly narrated his life before leaving his baseball career and how he became a school custodian. As the TV crew continued taping, he went on to coach his three-player team against Jason’s former teammates, surprising everyone when the former beat the latter.
But the supposedly happy ending got preempted. The sportscaster’s daughter and Jason later overheard Mr. Henry crying and confiding to his wife about the pretenses he did in the interview telling his own stories as if they were McHenry’s. They realized he was not really Buck McHenry at all. He coached them just so his grandson would get into sports again instead of grieving the loss of his whole family to a fatal car accident. Ironically, Mr. Henry was put on the spot and had to invent lines on camera.
We occasionally go through the same episodes in our life in which, like Jason’s experience, the ideal becomes real. We then see that life is full of hope and color. But all too soon, reality kicks in and kicks us off our high horses much to our dismay. Then it becomes a true test of our strengths and weaknesses. This is where we usually fail as our pessimism blinds us from the lessons we ought to learn.
Contrary to Jason’s fear though, the taped interview of Mr. Henry’s lies was not aired on TV. Last-minute editing saved all of them, including the sportscaster himself, from a humiliating assumption they all believed to be true. In lieu of the “lost-and-found-legend” storyline, the custodians’ coaching skill was highlighted in the TV program. The host even commented the Mr. Henry “was, if anything, something more” than McHenry because he “did something the great pitcher never did” — to coach three children to victory over nine presumably better players.
What I like best about this book is that it crosses it own borders. It is a tale for the young that also appeals to adults. It is a sports novel that non-sporty types can easily grasp.
Beyond its unrestrictive mold, the simplicity of its plot sheds away any literary clutter and delivers only what is essential. The ending is rather unusual for a story about searching. But if we look closely into its consequences for the characters, we can see that it is the better ending for them. Jason went uncovering the truth in a baseball card but he discovered a man. Finding Buck McHenry did not matter anymore because he already found a real hero in Mack Henry.
There are very few certainties in the world. Failure is one of them. For Jason, it was an honest mistake out of a dream to bring a legend back to life. For Mack Henry, it was a noble dream to bring a smile to his grandson’s gloomy heart.
Lies had been said. Excitement had gone awry. But a fresh discovery of themselves was their prize; a great new team was their bonus. If we will only be a Jason or a Mack Henry in every trial that we face, we can see more growth than breakdowns and appreciate the little nudges from inescapable potholes on our way.
Life is a journey with more detours than freeways. Success waits for us at our desired destination but happiness comes to those who make a destination out of every detour.