The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon begins by transporting Trisha McFarland from her familiar urban surroundings to the Maine wilderness, and the dangers of that shift are clear from the first sentence. In fact, King, who is thoroughly grounded in the American literary tradition, quickly immerses both Trisha and his readers into a typically American landscape, where he confronts his human protagonist with a seemingly endless and hostile wilderness.
Like many characters in classic American literature, Trisha discovers that Nature is much more complex than she first imagined. Worried initially about her situation, she tries "not to let herself think. This is serious, this is very serious. Trying not to think that sometimes when people got lost in the woods they got seriously hurt. Sometimes they died." Certainly King does not minimize the dangers of untamed nature, for Trisha experiences a violent thunderstorm her first night in the woods; she is bitten by mosquitoes and stung by wasps; she experiences severe hunger and thirst once she has consumed the contents of her sack lunch; she is tracked by what is either a fully grown North American black bear or a horrible monster; and she finally contracts pneumonia, which leaves her wracked with fever, chills, and what may well be hallucinations. Even without possible supernatural explanations for what happens to her, Nature is presented here as unfriendly to individuals who are unfamiliar with it.
On the other hand, with life reduced to its essential elements, Trisha discovers that she can survive in Nature by feeding herself on checkerberries, fiddlehead ferns, beechnuts, and even a raw trout she catches using the remains of her poncho. She also discovers that the natural world is full of wonders as well as things of which she is profoundly afraid. For example, while lost in the woods, Trisha encounters a family of beavers as well as a mother deer and her two fawns. Her delight at the beavers is palpable: "She stood on tiptoes, holding the trunk of the tree for balance. . . . He appeared to have whiskers, and his fur was a luxuriant dark brown. . . . Looking at him made her think of the illustrations in The Wind in the Willows."
Although alone in the wilderness, Trisha never entirely loses her connection to other human beings. She is able to fend off starvation because she remembers her mother's teachings about checkerberries and fiddleheads and because she had learned about beechnuts "from science class at school." As long as its batteries hold out, her Walkman serves to keep her connected to civilization as well as to her hero, Tom Gordon; and, even when the batteries go dead, she hangs on to it as her last connection to civilization and humanity. As a result, Tricia has a missile to hurl at the bear creature. It is a desperate move, and it may well have saved her life: "She looked into the bear-thing's empty eyes and understood it meant to kill her no matter what. Courage was not enough. But so what? If a little courage was all you had, so what? It was time to close." And even before that final confrontation with the unknown, when she spends the night in the cab of a long abandoned truck, she discovers that the human connection retains some power over the forces of the unknown: "It came for you, it meant to take you. Then you climbed into the truck and it decided not to, after all. I don't know why, but that's what happened."
While it is possible to read The Girl Who...
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Loved Tom Gordon as a simple adventure story about a young girl lost in the wilderness, King also uses his protagonist's plight as a metaphor for being spiritually alone. Like Dante Alighieri, whose character began his famous Comedy having "strayed into a dark forest, / And the right path appeared not anywhere," Trisha is both physically and spiritually lost. In fact, King even uses the same metaphor, having Trisha observe that "she had learned to stay on the path. . . . On the path you were safe." When she tries to pray, she finds that she cannot: "Neither of her parents were churchgoers— her Mom was a lapsed Catholic, and her father . . . had never had anything to lapse from—and now she discovered herself lost and without vocabulary in another way."
In the woods, she encounters three figures that seem to represent different spiritual possibilities. One tells her that he comes "from the God of Tom Gordon. . . . The one he points up to when he gets the save." The next, who resembles her father, tells her that he is the Subaudible, her father's way of characterizing the force that "keeps drunken teenagers . . . from crashing their cars. . . . That keeps most planes from crashing even when something goes wrong. Not all, just most." This figure confesses, "I'm actually quite weak. I can't do anything for you, Trisha. Sorry." Most terrifying is the third figure who announces that he comes "from the God of the Lost" and who warns her, "The skin of the world is woven of stingers, a fact you have now learned for yourself. Beneath there is nothing but bone and the God we share." This third figure will haunt Trisha almost until the novel's conclusion: "You could call it whatever you wanted— the lord of dark places, the emperor of understairs, every kid's worst nightmare."
Countering this evil force is Trisha's hero, baseball player Tom Gordon, who serves both as her guardian angel and as Virgil to her Dante. On her first night in the woods, she turns on her Walkman and is fortunate to find the Red Sox game on a day when Gordon wins the game, a circumstance to which she attaches almost mystical significance: "She was lost but would be found. She was sure of it. Tom Gordon had gotten the save and so would she." King also suggests that Gordon's characteristic gesture after he wins a game is indicative of his faith in God: "Gordon did what he always did when he secured the save: pointed at the sky. Just one quick point of the finger." Trisha briefly finds faith in Gordon's God when "she pointed briefly up, the way Gordon did. And why not? Something had brought her through the day. . . . And when you pointed, the something felt like God."
Trisha's faith wavers through the course of the novel, but she finally remembers what Gordon had told her when she comes to confront the bear/God of the Lost: "It's God's nature to come on in the bottom of the ninth. . . . And what was the secret to closing? Establishing who was better. You could be beaten . . . but you must not beat yourself." Trisha finally manages to overcome the God of the Lost because of her faith in Tom Gordon and his god but also because of her faith in herself. King concludes the novel with Trisha in her hospital bed suffering from pneumonia but surrounded by a family that has come to accept this God as well. Nodding to her father, she points her right index finger up. "The smile which lit his face . . . was the sweetest, truest thing she had ever seen. If there was a path, it was there. Trisha closed her own eyes on his understanding and floated away into sleep." It appears that Trisha manages to redeem not only herself but her family as well.
Thus, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is both a spiritual biography and a bildungsroman—a kind of novel that focuses on the formative years of the main character— which deals with Trisha's emotional development. While she spends only nine days in the woods, she comes to recognize that she has gained a lifetime of experience. In fact, she recognizes that "in a lot of ways she was older than Pete now." It is also a one of the most recent in a long list of novels that uses baseball, the American national game, as a metaphor for the American search for something larger and more powerful than the individual. However, if other writers have used baseball as a metaphor of the game of life, few have taken the image of the save quite as far as King does.