The Trading Game: The Most Josh Book Ever Written
My wife and I used to read our favorite childhood books to each other. I remember doing this in our first apartment outside of Rochester, but I also remember doing this after we’d left for Florida, so it must have lasted a couple of years. I read The Trading Game, by Alfred Slote, to her during this time, at which point she declared it “the most Joshua book ever written.” I hadn’t given any thought before why I liked it so much, or what about it resonated with me so much. My favorites in everything—music, movies, books—were just that, favorites, things that I liked for whatever reason. I knew of course that people liked different things, that certain things so revered by some were met with total difference by others. But why, exactly, I’d never thought about.
I’ve long thought that one of the best parts of being a parent is reading to my children. And most recently I read to them The Trading Game, possibly my favorite kids book of all time. And Emily was right (like usual): The Trading Game IS probably “the most Josh book ever written,” and why I read it seventy-four times beginning from the time I was in grade school through middle and probably high school is obvious, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.
For starters, there is so much baseball. I’ve loved baseball longer than I can remember. I was a decent baseball player, never great but never one of the worst either, and few things were, and remain, more enjoyable than throwing a baseball back and forth with a friend, my father, my son, or my nephew.
And while The Trading Game deals heavily with a boy’s love for playing baseball and his youth baseball team, it also weaves in a baseball card plotline which so often takes the forefront of the narrative. I’ve collected baseball cards since I was seven years old. Baseball cards were at the height of their popularity when I was in grade school, and there were baseball card shops everywhere, though you could also buy cards at convenient stores and supermarkets.
Andy, the main character and first-person narrator in The Trading Game, rides his bike all over town, to friends’ houses, to the ball fields, and to The Grandstand, the neighborhood baseball card and collectibles store. My friends and I rode our bikes all over town, constantly, including to Wegmans to buy sodas (we said “pop”) and MAD magazines. We played sports all the time, and most of the other kids collected baseball cards to a degree.
I read several of Matt Christopher’s sports book when I was a kid. But what resonated with me so much about The Trading Game that those books (and others) lacked were the family dynamics.
Andy’s parents were divorced. His father had quickly remarried, moved across the country, and had recently died in a car accident. This introduced some grown-up themes to The Trading Game, themes that I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to when I was eleven. Andy’s father had promised Andy that he would someday inherit his baseball card collection, which in the book was worth nearly twenty thousand dollars (although nowadays would probably be worth ten times that much), but it didn’t get specified in the will, which is now being probated. There is conflict with Helen, Andy’s step-mother, who is discussed but never seen, about how much the collection is worth because it is considered part of the estate, and therefore affects how much additional money, factoring in the value of the baseball card collection, Andy will inherit. Andy wants to use the collection to trade with his friend, Tubby, who has the only copy of Ace 459, Andy’s grandfather’s baseball card, who played for the Tigers for one forgettable season in 1945. Andy’s mother tries explaining to him how he can’t trade the cards yet, how trading those cards (Andy is willing to trade a valuable Mickey Mantle rookie card for the card of his grampa, worth only a quarter) is trading away money. The talk of money frustrates Andy, who acts with his heart.
While the novel brilliantly mixes in flashback scenes, the actual narrative only covers two days, a Saturday and a Sunday. But during those two days, he engages in several serious conversations with his mother. The significance of this isn’t lost on Andy, as he says “And suddenly it was exciting. We were really talking to each other. I’d never ever talked like this with her…But here we were, Mom and me, thinking out loud together.” I always loved that.
Andy spends much of the novel trying to make sense of his parents’ divorce. While I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to make sense of my own parents’ separation when I was ten, I really didn’t dwell on it at the time, although it was obvious to everyone else that it affected me a great deal (as I tried to convey in my semi-autobiographical short story, “The Dog’s Fault”).
Not everything was perfectly parallel. Andy’s father remarried quickly, while mine didn’t until I was nineteen. Andy’s father was dead, while mine is alive and well. Andy was an only child, but I had three sisters, the oldest of which was still a couple of years away from going to college. And, even though they were separated, I still saw both parents nearly every day.
When I look back on it all, though, some of my most vivid memories are one-on-one moments with my mother. One memory, which recurred in variations, is of my mother bringing home Wendy’s for just the two of us and eating together at the kitchen table while watching the Bills-Dolphins game on TV, my mother worrying out loud that the Bills were going to fire Wade Phillips; it’s a good memory, if not insignificant; the scenes with Andy and his mother resonated with me, and now I recognize why.
Andy’s grampa, the former major leaguer, has come to stay with Andy and Andy’s mother, for some medical tests. It’s a beautiful thing, Andy’s mother so involved and concerned for her former father-in-law. It’s clear that grampa always liked her, and did not approve of the divorce or of his son’s new wife.
But Andy’s grampa and deceased father had a strained relationship long before that. When he was a kid, Andy’s dad’s safe place was a tree house—a single board, really, in the middle of a secluded wooded area that has since been surrounded by suburban sprawl. When things went badly with his dad, Andy’s dad escaped to his tree house where he sometimes brought baseball cards with him. I, too, nailed a sturdy piece of plywood twenty feet up a tree on my side yard. It was within spitting distance of our house, but with the thick branches and leaves, I was well hidden. I never brought baseball cards up there—there wasn’t enough space—not did I necessarily think of it as a safe space, but rather just someplace cool I liked to sit every now and then. And read. I remember reading The Trading Game up there.
I cannot overstate how much I love this book. I got choked up as I read out loud the climax, as well as the emotional aftermath in the chapter that followed. My children were hanging on every word. Even Tamsin, my daughter, who so often is squirreling around and appears distracted (she actually picks up every detail; it just doesn’t look like it), was motionless during those final few chapters. After the final sentence, they both curled up to me and we had a nice cuddle for a few minutes before they went up to bed. I think they learned a lot about life from this one.
I’ve never read anything else by Alfred Slote. That’s unlike me. Typically if I like one book, I seek out others by the same author. The Trading Game seems to be out of print, but a quick google search shows that Slote was a prolific and somewhat celebrated children’s author, and one of his books was the subject of an ESPN documentary. I intend to seek it out (it’s called Jake), and read it, too, to my children.