The Story behind the Story
and Parent Resources
The Story behind the Story:
Over the Wall
Taken from an interview first published by the St. Petersburg Times, November 2003
"Baseball's Life Lessons" by Holly Atkins
Lately, one author's work can be found on my nightstand, in my school tote bag and in my car CD player: John H. Ritter. So much more than a baseball writer, Ritter's work resonates with themes that touch us all: the power of the human spirit, the ugliness of discrimination, the struggle to come to know and believe in who you are.
Recently I corresponded with him to chat about books, baseball and why young adult novels are not for teens only.
Atkins: Over the Wall begins with this quote by Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates: "If you have an opportunity to make things better, and you don't do that, you are wasting your time on this earth." How does your job as a writer tie into this philosophy?
Ritter: It's the same. Over the Wall is essentially a modern-day retelling of the Good Samaritan story. The Dog-Man at the National Mall reminds the crowd that when you see a fallen man, "You don't walk by," he says. "You stop and help." Well, like Tyler in the book, as a teen right out of church confirmation class, I saw plenty of pain and suffering in this world, much of it caused by me or by my own countrymen, and now, as a writer, I do have the opportunity to make things better, instead of wasting my time on earth. So I aim for that.
Atkins: Even though it takes place in 2000, Over the Wall, like Choosing Up Sides is very historical in many ways. Near the end of the book, Coach says, "Underneath the scab and scar of what we think Vietnam was or wasn't, something in there is still festering. In a lot of us." Would you comment on this?
Ritter: Most wars never end. Tyler comes to see this when he reads the plaque on the Civil War monument in New York City dedicated only to soldiers and sailors of the North—not those on the other side for which his ancestors fought. Then, with a bit of critical thinking, he connects that to the one-sided Vietnam War Memorial wall in D.C. and his artistic brain makes a quantum leap. He sees what Coach Trioli calls, "the big picture." Vietnam was a murky war fought for murky reasons, causing a lot of 18, 19, and 20-year-old kids to do things they will never talk about with family and friends. These memories then become wounds that never heal. In fact, they fester, even today, made worse, of course, by the recent wars and exemplified by the high suicide rate among returning vets, which I cite in Over the Wall. And it’ll be the Vietnam syndrome all over again once the great influx of Iraq War vets hits our shores. We’ll start to see the same problems we saw all through the '70s and early '80s. Homeless vets galore, high divorce rates, drug abuse, the whole nine. And it’s not until the suicides really change the dynamic, as I point out in Over the Wall, and these troubled vets start disappearing, that the culture can forget the last war, go on about its business, and begin to dream about starting the next one. This has been a twenty to thirty year cycle repeated in this country ever since the Spanish American War, usually fueled by a subservient if not gullible (or culpable) press.
Atkins: In your novels, the "helpers" each main character meets dispense such sage advice. One of my favorite lines comes from Rachel in The Boy Who Saved Baseball: "I just believe that when good people do things with good intentions, good things happen. But when we do stuff out of fear, bad things happen." Learning to not "do stuff out of fear" is a lesson many adults and children must come to know. Why have you included this theme in your stories?
Ritter: It was Tyler's fear of being shown up and losing face that caused him to go to such violent lengths to avoid embarrassment. Until he got to the core of the matter, which led him to see the other side as human and build his monument to them. The only antidote for fear is love. It's not more pride, more boasting, or fear-based thinking. The characters here learn that it's not so much what they do that counts, but the motivation behind what they do. Is it of love? Or of fear? I say if the Bush Administration causes a backlash in the next election against Republicans over Iraq, for example, it will not be because of the war, but rather the motivation—or agenda—behind the war. It's not appearing to have been an act of love.
Atkins: Walls also appear as important metaphors in your books. The Vietnam War Memorial, Del Gato's wall, the baseball field wall. Why?
Ritter: The fact that the Vietnam War Memorial is referred to as The Wall is very revealing of our national consciousness. I've always hated that reference. Walls separate people and they're such symbols of fear. In my lifetime I've seen the Berlin Wall go up and down—and which was better? I've seen the international border wall at the San Diego/Tijuana crossing become fortified—leading to thousands of deaths in the California/Arizona deserts, but little difference in the number of border crossers. So, who benefits?
In the National Mall, there are no Vietnamese names on that wall, even though over three million died. It's as if their lives didn't matter, yet many of them fought right alongside the Americans, died for the Americans, and were killed by the Americans. The monument seems to say, "We only want you to remember us." We ignore the fact that every wall, like every war, has two sides, and standing on either obstructs one's view of the other. As Tyler learns, we only get "the big picture" when we stand back and rise above.
New York City
Baseball in Central Park
New York City hot dog cart
Vietnam War Memorial