Road Trip Dad - The RTD Quarantine Reading List (so far)
Dan Witmer | October 19, 2020
Need I remind you that, while coaching youth, scholastic, and college teams in not only lacrosse, but also ice hockey and soccer, I also spent 33 years teaching HS English? Being a “word nerd” was what put bread on my family’s table, and as much as I loved coaching, I also enjoyed sharing my love for good literature with my students.

Yes, I started playing lacrosse in elementary school, and it was the first organized sport introduced to me. But I was also a voracious reader by then, too. My Saturday mornings weren’t filled with cartoons – that’s when I stayed in bed and read. I can still see my elementary school library, my middle school library, and my high school library – where I spent most of my study halls. I can also picture the librarians for each.

I’ve written about book recommendations previously on this site – some coaching books, some lacrosse-specific titles, and others that covered culture-changing, leadership, and team-building.

This time I’m throwing it all at you. Fiction. Non-fiction. Lacrosse. Local authors. Best-sellers, and titles you’ll never hear about anywhere else…

The following books are the ones I’ve read since last March, when this Bizarro-world froze us in our tracks at what is usually our most favorite time of the year. They’re not necessarily in the order I read them; instead, I’m grouping them strategically for organizational purposes…

Back in March, in one of my last RTD blogs before taking a hiatus after March 23, I wrote about John Sardella’s beautiful tribute to his wife in his book, A Journey Without a Map. If you’re from the Syracuse area, you should know John – former player at Jamesville-Dewitt HS and Cortland State, teacher, administrator, and lacrosse coach in the Liverpool school district, author of L is for Lacrosse, and one of the founding fathers of the BULL youth program. For the purpose of RTD continuity, I’ll start with that book – and besides, I re-read John’s book when a close friend and former assistant coach was diagnosed with Stage 4 myeloma a few months later. I asked John for another copy that I wanted to share as a gift and he graciously complied with a signed edition immediately. For another look at my complete March 2 RTD review of A Journey Without a Map, see the link here: http://www.justlacrosse.com/20archives/blogs/witmer_yellowlacrosseball.htm

The George Stories is another work by a local author. Chris Gould is a teacher at Hannibal High School and a former colleague of mine, and we used to talk occasionally about our bucket list dreams of publishing our writing someday. Well, The George Stories is Chris’ debut novel, and I finally got around to sitting down with it once I became quarantined last March. It’s a dark, sometimes funny/sometimes not character study that will keep you turning pages once you get started. I haven’t spoken with him recently, but I hope he’s working on his next work…

I wouldn’t call myself a history buff, but I’ve always enjoyed reading about American history from the Civil War to the present. Lars Anderson’s Carlisle vs. Army tells the backstory of the day Jim Thorpe and Dwight Eisenhower crossed paths in a football game between the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and West Point in 1912. The book is filled with familiar names and events – the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Pop Warner, Omar Bradley Jr, the eyebrow-raising, head-shaking history of America’s Indian Schools, and so much more.

Along those same lines, I was thrilled to hear about William Kent Kreuger’s This Tender Land. Runaways escape a Minnesota Indian School and take off down the Mississippi River during The Great Depression. Sounded to me like The Grapes of Wrath and Huck Finn – two personal favorites – had had a love child! As I dove in for an amazing ride with the four runaways, I found elements of Dickens in there, too. If you’re looking for a good historical fiction adventure with plenty of twists and turns, and some characters you’ll fall in love within the first few pages, seek no further! I highly recommend this book!

Further down on the fiction spectrum, I indulged in my relatively recent appreciation for Young Adult literature and got my hands on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Late in my teaching career at Hannibal, I became a huge fan of the HG trilogy and persuaded my administrators to allow us to teach the first book in our 11th grade English classes – the year before the blockbuster movie came out. All throughout our building, we had everyone – students and staff – reading the best-selling series. So when the backstory of President Snow – as a conflicted teenager – was released this summer, I was all over it. I expect we’ll see a movie (or two) result sometime when movies are a thing again… or maybe coming to us soon on Netflix or Hulu. Hunger Games fans will not be disappointed.

If you haven’t discovered the amazing writing of Fred Backman (A Man Called Ove, Beartown, Us Against You, and more), his latest, Anxious People, is another masterpiece (and I don’t throw that word around loosely!). I found myself shaking my head, laughing out loud, and maybe even tearing up once in a while. It, too, has amazing box office potential (but I want Beartown and Us Against You on the big screen first). Backman has an amazing knack for story-telling, and his ability to pull back and reflect from within one character to the next is scary-good. Want a book club suggestion? This one will not disappoint, and your friends will thank you!

OK, now for some lacrosse-related titles…

I was given a copy of Lacrosse: The Ancient Game by Jim Calder and Ron Fletcher by a friend and I mistakenly thought I had already read it. Then I opened it up one day and started in – and realized I was definitely reading it for the first time! The book includes traditional Native American history and lore of the game’s earliest origins, as told by Indigenous story-tellers, and then the second half tells more about the growth of the game into the United States and its early places in American East Coast universities and clubs. I’ve met Jim at vendors’ tables at Lake Placid and coaches’ conventions; he’s from Canada, and Long Island, and played at Hobart, and his brother was the AD at Johns Hopkins for a while. Think you know lacrosse? Think again. This one belongs on every lacrosse fan’s bookshelf.

Next is Paul’s Wild Ride, by Paul Lamparski – not really a lacrosse book, but I believe anyone who has played the game in college, gotten older and lived a life of work and family, and then later reconnected with the game will enjoy this journal of Paul Lamparski’s battle with cancer. Paul played in the older divisions at Lake Placid for years, and he and his wife came to love their experiences so much that they bought a house up there. Paul was inducted posthumously as one of our 2020 Legends of Lake Placid this summer, and my conversations with his wife Lee led me to this book. I didn’t really know Paul (but I swear I recognized his photo that Lee sent to SLV for his induction), but his journal entries about lacrosse, music, boyhood, fatherhood, nostalgia, and more made me feel like we were steadfast friends. You might not be able to find it on Amazon, but let me know if you’d like a copy and I’ll see if I can help make it happen.

Next is one of those self-improvement books that tries to appeal to both the sports guy like you and me as well as the reader who wants the secret to personal and professional success. Think Like A Warrior: The Five Inner Beliefs That Make You Unstoppable by Darrin Donnelly tells the fictional story of a washed-up, down-on-his-luck football coach who hits rock-bottom – until he is visited by the mystical apparitions of Bear Bryant, Herb Brooks, John Wooden, and Vince Lombardi, among others (speaking of Dickens, sound familiar?). I was dubious at first, but any book featuring the presence of Herb Brooks and John Wooden is going to end up on my reading list. Maybe I was jealous that I hadn’t thought of this framework first, but it proved to be a captivating story of that football coach’s transformation and some guiding principles that will appear on a locker room wall (hopefully!) someday soon.

The last title on my sports shelf this time around is the attention-grabbing tome What Size Balls Do I Need? by Steve Morris. The author is a veteran youth soccer coach and administrator in California who has seen it all – good and bad – from players, parents, coaches, and referees. He tells a lot of great stories and, even though his experiences are with soccer, I think we can probably substitute just about any sport in there and recognize people and situations we will all recognize. The final chapter addresses the challenges and possible positive outcomes presented by the COVID virus, which wrapped the whole book up in a neat little package. A very interesting read – and highly recommended for youth coaches, administrators, and parents!

The last three are a trilogy of novels by Richard Ford, published between 1986 and 2006. The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land remind me of the Rabbit books by John Updike, which follow one character through decades of personal growth and evolution, life’s highs and lows, and changing relationships. I had never heard of the author or these books until I heard Bruce Springsteen mention them in a recent interview – so I was sold. The Sportswriter takes place over Easter week in 1982, Independence Day takes place over the Fourth of July weekend in 1988, and The Lay of the Land is set during Thanksgiving week in 2000. I started with the first, and thought it was a bit slow and uneventful at first, but Ford has a way with words if not plot, and I forged my way through it. Independence Day was considerably better, as the setting included days spent in Cooperstown and Oneonta, but I am enjoying The Lay of the Land the most. The narrator, Frank Bascombe, has a dark, often cynical way of seeing things, and his observations about American commercialism, culture, and politics hits home with me on all points. Maybe not for everyone, but I have no regrets taking reading suggestions from the Boss. There is a fourth book – Let Me Be Frank With You, and I’ll probably get around to that sometime before too long.

You might be asking yourself, besides that, what’s next?

I’ve been told that Ordinary Grace, also by William Kent Krueger, is a lot like This Tender Land, so that’ll probably find its way into my hands, and my son Eric is telling me good things about Natural Born Heroes, by Christopher McDougall, so I’ll probably take his recommendation as well.

How about you, RTD readers? Now that you know what kinds of stuff I’ve been enjoying, do you have any suggestions for me? Send me an email!

In the meantime, please drive carefully – and be safe, be smart, and be kind!

- Dan Witmer daniel.witmer@oswego.edu

Dan Witmer is the author of two books.  The Best of Road Trip Dad – the Laker Lacrosse Collection  is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland.  ...and piles to go before I sleep - The Book of Wit  is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and at the river's end bookstore.