LitStack Review: Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi

Zombie Baseball BeatdownZombie Baseball Beatdown
Paolo Bacigalupi
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date:  September 10, 2013
ISBN 0-316-22078-7

I wonder what motivated Hugo and Nebula Award winning author Paolo Bacigalupi to write a monster creature book geared at middle school kids.  Just what would have possessed the man who wrote the harrowing and taunt dystopian novel The Windup Girl to pen a smart aleck-y, gory, fast moving story for a demographic that probably would be the least likely to sit still and read it?  Whatever the reason, thank heavens he did because Zombie Baseball Beatdown is a smart, funny, entertaining and well written tale that effortlessly does a whole lot more than just conjure up the zombie apocalypse.

Rabi is not exactly the best batter on his Little League team (not even close); he’s more a numbers guy.  His friend Miguel is the slugger of the bunch.  But the star of the team is Sammy Riggoni, not because he’s the best player (not even close), but because his dad runs the huge meatpacking plant, Milrow Meats, and is the richest man in Delbe, Iowa.  Which also means that Sammy is a jerk and a bully, especially to Rabi and Miguel and any other player on the team whose parents weren’t born in the United States, especially if their families are menial labor at the plant his dad manages.

Still, it was shaping up to be a rather ordinary, uneventful summer.  The team sucks, like usual.  The days are hot and lazy, like usual.  Sammy and his cronies are barely tolerable, as always.  But then something happens.  Something stinky.  Literally.  One day, a smell wafts over the town – a horrible, gagging, infinitely worse-than-normal-even-for-a-meatpacking-plant smell that actually drives the workers out of the plant and sets off sirens inside and makes the evening news.  Milrow claims that it was nothing, an unfortunate circumstance brought on by mechanical work that inadvertently opened long enclosed systems.  The public was at no risk they assured the town, and by nightfall the smell had pretty much blown away.  But the workers – they are scared.  They, including Miguel’s uncle, tell of a strangeness in the plant that has many of the workers spooked; that something is happening at the plant, something that is secret, and wrong.

“But now, I tell you, these Milrow men in their fine suits, and their scientists in their clean white lab coats, they are doing new things…. They are finding new drugs to make the meat taste better, to make it grow fat, and these drugs…. these things that they feed them…. they make the cows strange.  The animals do not act as they should, and their meat does not smell as it should, and when you cut them, they do not bleed and die as they should….”

Yet no one will challenge the management at Milrow, because most of the workers desperately need the jobs; many of them are illegal immigrants from Mexico.  And there was good reason for them to be afraid of speaking out.  Miguel’s own father had been a hard worker at the plant for 15 years, yet he could no longer ignore what was happening inside the plant.  He and a few others had finally tried to publicize inhumane treatment by smuggling out a video taken of internal Milrow operations and posting it on the internet, but a flash raid by the ICE had all of those involved with the plot suddenly fired and/or deported, leaving behind friends and family, and leaving in their wake a now compliant workforce.

But secrets have a way of leaking out in ways that are not successfully anticipated – or in any way expected.

So when Rabi, Miguel and their geeky teammate Joe find themselves on the lam after another sudden ICE sweep of Miguel’s neighborhood meant to quell the gossip after the great smell-out, they think it’s strange to find their Little League coach, Mr. Cocoran, wandering and disoriented in the corn fields near Milrow’s holding pens.  Coach Cocoran works at Milrow, in the R&D department, but that’s no reason for him to be out in the corn.

It’s not until Coach Cocoran attempts to eat their brains that the boys realize that the summer is not going to be quite so boring after all….

A rollicking, smart ass, fast moving zombie story with twists and turns that are frightening in how believable they are – one would think that’s enough, eh?  But not for author Bacigalupi.  In a completely seamless fashion, he also folds in such immediate and layered issues such as illegal immigration, corporate experimentation and a lack of regulative oversight, crop manipulation, genetic mutation (of crops and livestock), poverty as it affects the family, prejudice, bullying… but it all works.  All these things are interrelated in real life and in Bacipalupi’s story.  And best of all – its entertaining.  And full of morality, the kind that kids recognize, that they are drawn to because it makes sense.  Teamwork.  Friendship.  Integrity.

It’s all there, and it’s funny and scary and gory to boot.

Kids are gonna love it.  YOU are gonna love it.  I know I loved it!

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