James Sturm, The Golem’s Mighty Swing. Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2001.
As a long time comic book enthusiast, and this week, all around busy person, it’s high time I review a graphic novel here on the blog. I hasten to add, the fact that the book is a graphic novel is no slight, and, truth be told, I’ve read it before, but re-reading it was a great pleasure. Sturm, a talented storyteller and cartoonist, has created some of my favorite graphic novels including The Golem’s Mighty Swing. Sturm takes the time to paint a picture of the time period he is portraying (in this case the 1920s), invests in character development, and often has an important piece of social commentary to offer.
Basing his tale on the barnstorming days of semi-professional baseball and very loosely on the House of David baseball team, Sturm tells the story of a Jewish barnstorming team called the Stars of David (note – House of David was NOT a Jewish team, but rather the product of Christian sect; their story is interesting and the real similarity here with Sturm is the long hair and beards). At any rate, Sturm’s Stars of David are led by Noah Strauss, a fictional former professional player for the Boston Red Sox. The team is filled with talented Jewish players including alcoholic “Buttercup” Lev, Noah’s sixteen-year old brother Moishe (Mo), and the fantastic Henry Bell (Hershl Bloom for appearance sake, but Mr. Bloom was crossing the color line as a Negro player on this barnstorming team).
In courses ranging from Twentieth Century American Popular Culture, to United States history surveys, to Native American history, I have utilized graphic novels in an effort to engage students. Works like Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, George O’Connor’s Journey into Mohawk Country, Sturm’s Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow, and even Neil Gaiman’s fanciful 1602 all have value in teaching American history. The Golem’s Mighty Swing, like Satchel Paige, exposes readers to the absolute bigotry of the United States in the early twentieth century. Referred to as “Sheens,” studied for horns on their heads, ogled at by fans, physically assaulted, and more, the Stars of David under Noah Strauss’ leadership are trying to make a go of it – and they’re not bad, winning 136 of 160 games in 1921.
It is promotional man Victor Paige who approaches Noah with the idea of increasing their “gate take” by creating a golem – they mythical man-made creature of Jewish legend that can be a servant and protector, but, not being made by God, has no soul. The golem would play for the Stars of David and, in Paige’s mind, would help the team earn as much as $700 per game. Noah initially is put off by the suggestion, especially as Paige suggests it will be Henry Bell to take the role of the golem.
As wonderful a character as Noah Strauss is, it is Henry Bell who has the most to teach readers and history students. Bell, quietly dignified, points out that if putting a costume on earns more money so be it – even more important is Bell’s role as the conscience of the team, and its protector, both in the lineup for baseball games, and otherwise. Students of history will recognize many of Bell’s decisions as important steps to take by oppressed people in the face of prejudice. It’s fiction, but Sturm gives readers of American history much to discuss – give it a try in either its singular form (now out of print) or as part of Sturm’s wonderful America: God, Gold, and Golems trilogy.