Oh, the perils of being raised in a dysfunctional family. It’s a bad, bad world out there, and having an out-to-lunch mother and an absent father sure can make life more difficult. Your only chance of survival: Rely on your inner resources and focus on your faith. Sounds like the latest from one of Oprah Winfrey’s ”Change Your Life” segments, right? Nope. It’s none other than Stephen King, whose new novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, finds its fright factor not in the supernatural but in the demons within.

Trisha McFarland, 9, is on a walk in the woods with her newly divorced space case of a mother and her bratty older brother; when their bickering and her urge to pee become unbearable, Trisha scoots off the Appalachian Trail and gets lost. As anxiety leads to panic, Trisha draws strength from things her parents have told her in the past: ”It’s the thought that counts,” her mother is fond of saying; ”If pigs had wings, bacon would fly” is one of her father’s favorite mottos. Clearly, for a stranded young girl with a dwindling supply of water, cliche-ridden advice just isn’t going to cut it.

Instead, Trisha’s thoughts turn to her crush, real-life Red Sox pitcher Tom Gordon. (In fact, King, a lifelong baseball fan, asked Gordon for his permission to appropriate him as a character.) At night, cold and scared, she turns on her Walkman and listens to Gordon’s heroics at Fenway. By day, as she becomes more delirious from malnutrition and dehydration, Trisha begins to hallucinate that Gordon is a kind of guardian angel, walking beside her, chatting with her about baseball games, and guiding her to safety.

But this story, and Trisha’s imagined relationship with Gordon, have very little to do with baseball. Gordon, you see, has this habit of pointing to the sky after he’s saved a game. It’s about God, get it? For those who have spent years of adulthood circling around questions of faith, it may be a little jarring to witness Trisha’s hasty conversion: ”Something had brought her through the day, after all, horrible as it had been. And when you pointed, the something felt like God. You couldn’t point to dumb luck…after all.” Some readers may find it odd that the writer telling us about this child’s quest for spiritual serenity and truth is Stephen King.

Surprisingly, the sticky religious questions — and there are a lot of them — don’t detract much from the pleasure of this story, unless you’re looking for a read like The Shining. The most supernaturally scary thing in this book turns out to be…a bear (or maybe it’s not a bear; King can’t quite decide). But he’s an elegant writer and a master of pacing. Here he’s at his best when he keeps the creepy elements to a minimum and concentrates on his girl-against-nature tale.

King’s been inching toward a book like this for a long time. His novels have become increasingly focused on spirituality (1996’s Desperation and the same year’s The Green Mile), and it’s evident he has spent a great deal of time grappling with the subject. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon isn’t going to keep die-hard horror fans up at night, but adventure addicts will find plenty of thrills. B+

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Book - Stephen King 1999)
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