August Read of the Month: “Hopscotch,” by Steve Cushman

Steve Cushman

Reviewed by Claire Matturro

Someone draws a hopscotch board on a sidewalk by a hospital in Greensboro, North Carolina. The hospital CEO with a Grinch persona orders it cleared off and a recently released felon, John Deaver, glad for his job as a janitor, erases it. But the chalk hopscotch board reappears on the sidewalk—again and again.

From this simple premise emerges a complex, moving, and well-written story that transcends mere chalk drawing. Steve Cushman’s Hopscotch is a gift to readers, one that offers the restorative powers of hope and human connection. As Rosa, a journalist who covers the developing media drama brought on by the hopscotch phenomenon, says, “[T]his thing, a child’s game, was making a difference in people’s lives.”

People from all walks of life are soon lured to the chalk drawing on the sidewalk: A disabled veteran and his brother, a terminally ill young girl, a brain-damaged boy, a man in the last stages of dementia, other hospital patients, doctors, nurses, and visitors. They come out to play hopscotch in the December cold.

The brain-damaged boy can’t remember how to play, so a man dressed as Santa helps him. The disabled veteran has no legs, so his brother plays for him. Emily, a young girl sick with an aggressive cancer, must fight her overprotective mother for the chance to play. And as she plays, other children in the hospital join her, and sustaining friendships blossom. Even a mockingbird seemingly plays the game, hopping on its twig-legs from square to square. As Rosa observes, in the act of playing this simple child’s game, lives are changed.

Not just changed, but restored. That’s the real story in this delightful novel with its beguiling simplicity. No, there are no Hollywood-styled miracles per se. The disabled veteran’s legs do not reappear, the cancer does not disappear, the metal plates in a child’s head do not transform into healthy brain tissue. But the characters who play hopscotch are impacted in some soul-deep, emotional way. Even the Grinch-CEO who keeps ordering the chalk drawing erased has a life-changing epiphany.

“It’s interesting,” says Rosa. “People walk by [the hopscotch board] and about half of them stop.  It’s like they’re mesmerized.  They can’t ignore it. Maybe it means something different for each person. Maybe it brings back their childhood, or memories of their own children, but whatever it is, it seems to take them away from their worries, even if just for a few moments.”

Among the myriad patients mesmerized by the game, Emily sees the hopscotch drawing as a last chance to play like a kid. In contrast to the game, she and her parents are weary of struggling with the seriousness—and grief—of her situation. Playing outdoors in the fresh air is a reprieve and a joyful opportunity.

Cushman has a gift for using ordinary details to create characters and a setting with heartfelt realism. For example, he writes that Emily “was eight and small for her age.  She had thin blond hair that blended in with the hospital bed sheets.  She was in room 302, an IV in each of her arms, and was day-dreaming about cats.”

The directness of these sentences work well with the themes at play in the book. Cushman touches on pathos, but with a positivity that does not overwhelm the reader. Consider this passage:

Her parents stood on opposite sides of Emily as she walked the halls of the pediatric unit.  She liked to see the other kid patients, even if they too looked as bad as she did: the yellow masks with the white string around their ears, the bald heads and yellow eyes.  The chunky boy with the scar on the right side of his head.  This had become her version of childhood and seeing other kids like her made her feel a little less alone.

Though the children are the emotional center of the story, adult characters are crucial to the intersecting story-lines as well. John Deaver, for instance, hopes to reunite with his nearly-grown daughter—and is willing to risk the job he needs to redraw the hopscotch game at least once. Cushman uses telling detail to introduce John, who was “the first-shift janitor assigned to the hospital’s sidewalks” and “had spent most of the day with his head down as he cleaned, not looking up, a skill he’d acquired during his time in prison.”

John, when assigned to clear the drawing of the sidewalk, first plays the game. By portraying this convicted felon immersed in a children’s game, Cushman reveals a deep desire for innocence and reconciliation.

The game, moreover, demonstrates Emily’s reckoning with her disease and her coming to a kind of peace. After suffering a fall and winning an emotional struggle with her worried mother, Emily takes renewed delight in the game: “She was jumping again, full of life, holding on to what she had left.”

A recurring theme here is the beauty of ordinary life. Watching snow, playing a game, catching a football thrown by an uncle, listening to a son playing guitar, sharing secrets with friends, sitting on the couch with a father watching television: these activities remind us that the glory of the good life is in our day-to-day pleasures.

This simple yet complex (and certainly compelling) book takes big risks with a small story. How easy it would have been for an author dealing with such a premise—and with a hospital full of sick and wounded people—to lapse into rank sentimentality or sappiness. But Cushman does not. His direct, unflinching sentences avoid clichéd, false emotion and offer startling insights into many characters.

Cushman also knows how to gut-punch readers with evocative sentences. Case in point: his description of Emily’s first meeting with the girl with cerebral palsy who would later become her friend: “They stood there for a second, both wanting the same thing, just someone to play with to help them forget they were standing in this place neither one wanted to be.”

In many ways, Hopscotch is a series of vignettes of characters with nothing in common except that they are in the hospital or are visitors or employees there. Of course, hopscotch is the mysterious catalyst that draws them together. Something in the act of playing outside in the fresh, albeit cold, air and sharing with strangers begins to restore them as their lives intertwine.

The story never reveals who sketches the hopscotch lines in the first place, or why they continue to reappear after being erased. Though John the janitor redraws it once, some other person or spirit draws and redraws this surprisingly curative game.

The hospital setting and characters ring with authenticity. And well they might, as Cushman has worked for 20 years as a hospital x-ray technician.

In addition to his hospital career, Cushman, who grew up in Florida, earned his M.A. in creative writing from Hollins University and his MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of two novels, Portisville, which won the 2004 Novello Literary Award, and Heart with Joy, as well as the short story collection Fracture City. His poetry chapbook, Hospital Work, was published in 2013. His short stories have been published in several noteworthy publications, and he lives in North Carolina with his wife and son.

Hopscotch, like the game from which it takes its title, restores hope. It did so, in fact, for the Southern inspirational and bestselling author Celeste Fletcher McHale, who said that the book “transported me back to a time when I believed anything was possible and hope was tangible.”

Hopscotch may inspire you, as it did me, to grab some chalk and draw hopscotch boards across the country. Maybe then we, too, would be restored like the characters in this fine, stirring, and original book.

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