The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is a surprisingly short novel for popular horror novelist Stephen King. Upon its initial publishing, the novel was quite a success reaching the top of the New York Times bestseller list within a month of it release, and it remained in that spot for eighteen weeks. The novel was praised for its in depth look at a young girl’s survival and psychological melt down as she braves the wilderness that she finds herself lost within. Certain reviews compared The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon to King’s previous works with similar themes such as family dynamics, insanity, and questions of faith. Throughout reading the work, it becomes difficult not to compare the novel to King’s other works because it has an essentially different tone than the others. There is a recognizable lack of dialogue for the purpose of understanding the main character, Trisha’s, steady decent into madness. This stylistic choice seemed alternative for King, especially when utilized in such a short novel. This could easily be what made the book so successful. It was unconventional Stephen King with fan favorite elements perfectly tied in.
Although, this unfamiliar approach may not have been perfect when truly compared to King’s prior and subsequent works. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon may be an entertaining story of determination in the face of adversity, but it cannot be seen as one of “the King of Horror’s” best novels. Consideration of the author’s popularity at the time of the book’s publication can lead to a conclusion that the sales figures were not caused by the book’s riveting plot but rather by the public’s anticipation of a new novel by their favorite horror novelist.
In 1999, when the novel was released, the last work that King had published was Bag of Bones in 1998. Interestingly enough The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon manuscript was submitted to Scribner by King as he was putting finishing touches on Bag of Bones. Bag of Bones was released first and was received by the public incredibly well. The review for Publisher’s weekly was glowing with praise,
“From his mint-fresh etching of spooky rural Maine to his masterful pacing and deft handling of numerous themes, particularly of the fragility of our constructs about reality and of love's ability to mend rifts in those constructs, this is one of King's most accomplished novels.” (Publishersweekly).
The novel continued to go on to win the Bram Stoker Award for best novel in 1998 and the British Fantasy Award for best novel in 1999 (Wikipedia). With all of this publicity bolstering King’s bestselling author status, his readership has reason to anxiously await his next published work. In 1999, when the novel was published, the reviews were positive, but not as glowing as they were for Bag of Bones. Granted, King admits that he had no intended on writing The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, comparing it to “an unplanned pregnancy” (TOR). Comparing the Publisher’s Weekly review for Bag of Bones to the review for The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, the former receives more attention for originality and detail whereas the predominant opinion on The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was that “It's classic King, brutal, intensely suspenseful, an exhilarating affirmation of the human spirit.” (PublishersWeekly). This review simply refers to the story as another Stephen King novel. When thoroughly examining the plot and prose, a reader can discern that this story does not stand out amongst the copious amounts of his other works because the story is much too simple.
Upon researching numerous reviews of the novel, many readers boasted about the quality of psychoanalysis that King utilizes throughout the text, but others were not content with the story itself. One reviewer supports the idea that the novel itself was not King’s best, saying
“I did thoroughly enjoy this book…the problem that I had though, is that…nothing really happens. We go through the whole book and about the most interesting thing that happens is when she hallucinates some scary looking priests and falls in her own shit.” (Owlcation).
So much of this novel is following Trisha’s repetitive nine days in the woods as she comes to terms with the possibility of her own death. The novel may have been a bestseller, but it certainly was not because of the quality of the plot.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon centers around a young girl, Trisha McFarland, who becomes lost in the woods while out hiking with her mother and brother. Trisha begins to rely upon her instincts to guide her through the forest while accompanied by an imaginary version of the Red Sox relief pitcher, Tom Gordon. Throughout each chapter, which King labeled as innings, Trisha becomes more hopeless but begins to rely more heavily upon her visions of the all-star pitcher. Each of these moments feels unvarying in the context of the story. Of course, a young girl is going to run into serious issues while attempting to survive in the wilderness, but the prose creates a repetition in each chapter where each event tends to be the same. There would be new obstacles to overcome, such as a wasp’s nest or failure to find a sufficient water supply, but the main themes of each chapter were Trisha’s declining physical and mental health. This threading of events may feel dull, but to specific critics this was the novel’s most glorious aspect. Grady Hendrix for Tor online is one of these individuals who sees the beauty in this type of repetitious writing. He claims that,
“…Today an editor would probably insist that Tom Gordon is “too small” and require some kind of high concept twist. I can easily imagine an editor insisting that The God of the Lost and Trisha battle throughout the book, whereas King lets the challenges that face Trisha mostly be mundane— hunger, thirst, hard walking, cliffs.” (TOR).
Despite Hendrix’s praise for the mundane tasks that Trisha has to complete in order to obtain her eventual freedom, the novel surely does not need a high concept twist, but it definitely needs more than the extensive description of these tasks for two hundred and twenty-four pages. As Edwin suggests, editors may have seen an issue with the novel because there really is not a lot of depth within its pages.
That is not to say that there are not any areas of climatic excitement because there are. These moments last for a page or two and end without any sort of resolution. For example, there is a moment when Trisha witnesses, with the aid of her failing health, three figures. Two were in white cloaks and one in black. The first was identified as “the God of Tom Gordon,” the second, “the Subaudible,” and the third “the God of the Lost.” Each one of these figures has a sort of relation to Trisha. “The Subaudible” is very similar looking to her father and the “the God of Tom Gordon” had a resemblance to the science teacher at her elementary school. The final figure, “the God of the Lost,” is the one that terrifies Trisha the most because of it’s cryptic message about something in the woods following her. (King, 196-198). This ‘something’ hooks the reader into questioning if that will be the classic King moment of impact. Will it be some sort of monster, or will it be a figment of her crazed imagination? What comes of this is a bear that Trisha spooks by mimicking the action of pitching a baseball. The bear is then shot by a hunter and Trisha is saved. There is no explanation of the hooded figures which Trisha refers to as “the priests.” (source). The only reoccurring element is the idea of “the God of the Lost” which Trisha will constantly reference. She questions whether “the God of the Lost” will let her escape the woods or not. The entire theme of these three figures plays into the theme of faith within the novel that was pointed out earlier. Reviews point out similarities between faltering ideas of religion and God within King’s other novels, explaining that, “he (King) explicitly explores questions of faith here (as he has before, as in Desperation) but without impeding the rush of the narrative.” (PublishersWeekly). In another review, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is compared to King’s serial novel The Green Mile, calling it “King’s most spiritual and most moving (novel), accomplishing a lot of what The Green Mile set out to do only with less plot machinery and visible effort.” (TOR). Critics enjoy the subtlety of Trisha’s declining faith but there are times that it is so subtle that it does not move the story along. Other than the initial meeting with all three ‘priests,’ the plot point is no longer important to the overall storyline of the novel. It is another simple example of Trisha slowly losing her senses.
The argument could easily be made that the entire novel is centered around Trisha’s hallucinations, but the issue at hand is that of the way the novel is set up. Not only is the language very simple in the story’s content, but it could easily have had a much more interesting decay of sanity. The comparison here can be drawn from King’s 1987 novel, Misery. The two tales are wholly different in plot, but both involve a character that is at wit’s end and falling into a maddened sense of self. Paul Sheldon, the main character in Misery, is aware of his decline in sanity, in a similar way that Trisha is slowly becoming aware of hers. Consistently, Trisha mutters self-affirmations about not losing her mind. Paul Sheldon takes a different approach and steadily accepts that his madness is becoming a part of him. The biggest difference between Trisha’s and Paul’s breakdowns are the detail in which King explains them both. In Misery the details are so personal that it feels easy to understand exactly how Paul is thinking and even how he is seeing the world around him. As for Trisha’s situation, it does not feel personal, but a mere afterthought in the story drafting process.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is by no means a difficult read or a “bad” book. It is very much classic Stephen King, as many reviewers have noted. The idea that this novel was a New York Times bestseller does not correlate with the book’s literary merit because it is not that powerful of a novel. King has been hitting the top of the bestseller list as often as Danielle Steele, John Grisham, and James Patterson. The public devours novels by these authors because they are so well known for the quality of most of their works. Even their worst novels end up becoming bestsellers because they are blockbuster novelists in the public eye. This is a phenomenon that has been occurring for a long time. For example, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 did not make it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, but his subsequent novel Something Happened did reach the top because of Heller’s rising popularity in the literary world. Something Happened was not nearly as grand a novel as Catch-22 but it was more of a bestseller. This same happening occurs with King’s novels. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon may have made it to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list, but that does not mean it got there because it was of great literary substance, or even great entertaining substance. This can be seen as an issue in the publishing world when books are placed on a ranked scale. Once an author becomes extremely popular for one of their works, their subsequent novels will be found on the bestsellers list just because of the name. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is not an anomaly in this sense, it merely fits the mold that has been crafted for it by King’s impressive bibliography of previous bestselling novels.
“The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon Entry.” Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, Buffalo & Erie County, bepl.ent.sirsi.net/client/en_US/default/search/detailnonmodal/ent:$002f$002fSD_ILS$002f0$002fSD_ILS:1006378/ada.
King, Stephen. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. 1st ed., Scribner, 1999.
Harvey, Elle. “Book Review: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King.” Owlcation.com, Owlcation, 8 Apr. 2017,owlcation.com/humanities/Book-Review-The-Girl-Who-Loved-Tom-Gordon.
Collings, Michael R. “Horror Plum'd: An International Stephen King Bibliography and Guide 1960-2000.” Overlook Connection Press, 2002.
“The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon Entry.” Stephenkingcollector.com, 2000, www.stephenkingcollector.com/1st/tomgordon.html.
Hendrix, Grady. “The Great Stephen King Reread: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.” Tor.com, MacMillan, 23 July 2015, www.tor.com/2015/07/24/the-great-stephen-king-reread-the-girl-who-loved-tom-gordon/.
“The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.” PublishersWeekly.com, 5 Apr. 1999, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-684-86762-5.
“Bag of Bones.” PublishersWeekly.com, 31 Aug. 1998, https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-684-85350-5
“New York Times Fiction Bestsellers of 1999.” Wikipedia.com, Wikimedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_York_Times_Fiction_Best_Sellers_of_1999
“Bag of Bones.” Wikipedia.com, Wikimedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bag_of_Bones#Awards