Introducing Joe Louis to a New Generation
“A Nation's Hope”: In 1938, most Americans saw Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling as good vs. evil.
By DAVID MARGOLICK
Published: April 8, 2011
A NATION’S HOPE
The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis
By Matt de la Peña
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Unpaged. Dial Books for Young Readers. $17.99. (Picture book; ages 4 to 8)
BIRD IN A BOX
By Andrea Davis Pinkney
Illustrated. 278 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $16.99. (Middle grade; ages 8 to 12)
Times Topic: Children's Books Reviews
The time has long since passed when fathers and their children — almost always, it’s true, their sons — would go to the fights or watch them on television Friday nights, bonding over blood and gore. Now, such pursuits might be deemed child abuse. For a sport once second only to baseball in popularity, it’s just another cause of death.
Yet here, miraculously, are two boxing-related books for young people: “A Nation’s Hope,” a superbly illustrated picture book by Matt de la Peña and Kadir Nelson, and “Bird in a Box,” a powerful middle-grade novel by Andrea Davis Pinkney. And, in a second swipe at political correctness, each highlights that most unfashionable of figures: Joe Louis.
Sports not on life support can accommodate many heroes — Derek Jeter doesn’t threaten Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. But boxing has no contemporary claimants, and mired in historic disrepute, it retains few. The plodding, inarticulate and apolitical Joe Louis, unlike the more flamboyant Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, has been reduced to a footnote.
Except, that is, to anyone (and particularly anyone black) who lived through and remembers Louis’s glorious career in the 1930s and ’40s, when he electrified the nation, gave hope to an entire race and became the first black athlete to “cross over” to a white fan base. Louis was incontrovertibly one of the key black figures of the 20th century. So it’s heartening to discover two books that begin to tell his story and remedy this injustice for the next generation.
“Bird in a Box” isn’t about Joe Louis per se. Instead, with tenderness and verve, it tells the stories of three 12-year-old black children, Hibernia, Otis and Willie, in Depression-era Elmira, N.Y. Hibernia’s mother abandoned her when she was a baby — to sing, she hoped, at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem — leaving the girl to her preacher father. Otis and Willie grow up in the Mercy Home for Negro Orphans: Otis’s parents are killed driving their truck, and in a drunken fit, Willie’s father sticks Willie’s hands in a pot of boiling grits, reducing them to stumps and ending Willie’s own dreams of glory in the ring.
Inspiring them throughout is Joe Louis. For the three children, as for millions of Americans, Louis’s nationally broadcast fights are communal, semireligious events.
Pinkney has done her homework, but she occasionally goofs. Louis’s promoter, for example, needed no gimmicks to generate interest in him. And blacks never had to donate nickels to prop up his career. Only much later — by which time the book’s characters would have been young adults — did he become a charity case.
“Bird in a Box” culminates on June 22, 1937, when Louis knocks out the “Cinderella Man,” James J. Braddock, to win the heavyweight crown. But Hibernia, Otis and Willie would have known, as Louis himself knew, that he wasn’t really champion yet. That didn’t happen until he beat the German boxer Max Schmeling. Their rematch, at Yankee Stadium in 1938, the most widely anticipated sporting event of its era, is the subject of “A Nation’s Hope.”
A picture book is not the place to explore subtleties like Schmeling’s ambiguous ties to the Nazis. Besides, that’s not how people saw it at the time: this was a struggle of good against evil, with Louis just about the only man willing to take on Hitler. De la Peña’s succinct text and Nelson’s intensely beautiful paintings don’t require much more time than Louis needed for Schmeling. But some 70 years later, the story is no less stirring.
David Margolick is the author of “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink” and “Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock,” to be published in October.