Play For A Kingdom

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Books When Johnny Marches Up to the Plate Charles Fountain In "Play for a Kingdom," Thomas Dyja, a former book editor and agent, has crafted a deep and mature first novel realistically encompassing two pillars of American history and culture - the Civil War and baseball.

Stirring and original, this unusual yet credible novel pits Rebs and Yanks against each other in a series of five games, before and after the grisly battle of Spotsylvania.

It is the spring of 1864, at the close of the battle of the Wilderness, the men of Company L, 14th Brooklyn - veterans of Fredericksburg, Manassas, and Gettysburg, and now just 17 days from the end of their three-year enlistment - are standing picket duty, guarding the perimeter of the Union retreat when they are pulled against their better judgment towards a shaft of sunshine in the thick Virginia forest.

Behind them lay two violent days of pointless skirmishing, and the deadening realization that "[a] war for principle and honor had become blood sport and they were being forced to play the game."

In front of them was the still-uncertain promise of home, and now, this ethereal wash of light.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Play for a Kingdom By Thomas Dyja Harcourt Brace & Co.

416 pp., $25 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Lyman Adler, a butcher back in Brooklyn, sees it first - a "trembling, honeyed light" that bathed a rich grassy field 150 yards across, a field that reminded Alder of the grounds where the Excelsiors played baseball back on Court Street in Brooklyn. He rustles about in his haversack for the baseball his son had sent from home, and invites his friend Newt Fry to have a catch.

Alder is aware that the woods about him are filled with Rebs but here in the grassy sanctuary he feels...