________________ CM . . . . Volume XX Number 14. . . .December 6, 2013



Sandra Neil Wallace.
New York, NY: Alfred A; Knopf Books (Distributed in Canada by Random House Canada), 2013.
274 pp., hardcover, $18.99.
ISBN 978-0-375-86754-5.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



“Settle down, boys,” Coach tells us. “Practice just started.”

“Then get those wetbacks to lay off me,” Rudy shouts.

Cruz sucks in his breath. “What? You’d rather have a bohunk mow you down?”

“I won’t have that kind of talk on my field,” Coach yells. “We’re above all that.” Coach is eyeing Rudy, but Rudy won’t look up. “You’ve all chosen to be on this team and we have the same goal: to win,” he says. “You can’t buy it or mine it. You have to earn it. And you can’t win it on your own. We need each other. The Slavs need the Mexicans and the Mexicans need the Irish and the Italians, so we’re all equal, aren’t we? Now come on, let’s get set to do the drill on the left side.”

But Rudy won’t get into position. “You’re wrong, Coach,” he says. “We don’t swim with them and we don’t eat with them. And when this is all over, my father won’t let you anywhere near a white player. You’ll be lucky to be coaching at the Indian school up in Flag.”

We all aim for Rudy, who’s swinging at any of us before Coach gets in between yelling for us to stop. Rudy’s still thrashing and he butts heads with Coach. Both soar into the air like elk bucks sparring during a rut – Rudy’s helmet lashing Coach on the forehead. Coach lunges backward, higher than he came. His head bobs twice as he lands, then his body goes limp as a rag doll, his face moist and pale a few feet away from his cap.

My stomach freezes but I start to run, not waiting to see if Coach might be okay. The wind slaps my face, drowning out the yelling and screaming behind me as I sprint toward the icehouse to get to a phone. If the door’s locked I’ll smash open the window. I don’t care about my hand. But then Gibby walks out of the icehouse.

“Ambulance!” I scream.”


The world of Felix “Red” O’Sullivan seems to be collapsing around him. He lives in the mining town of Hatley, Arizona, and it is evident that the mine is on the brink of closing forever. Many workers have already moved away, and others are prepared to follow. Red is just about to graduate high school and the school, itself, will close; Red’s graduating class will be the last. Red’s own family has become dysfunctional since his older brother Bobby was killed during World War II. His mother is mentally unstable and confined to a hospital, and his angry father cannot cope with the grief of losing his elder son.

     In the midst of this scenario of a disintegrating town and way of life is the town’s football team, the Muckers. Smaller than neighboring teams and even without a proper playing field, the Muckers remain determined to win the state championship. Red is the team quarterback, and much of the responsibility rests on his shoulders. Can the team pull together and pull off the miracle which will inspire the entire town? Can Red follow in his brother’s footsteps and lead the very last Muckers team to a trophy?

     Sandra Neil Wallace gives readers an inside look not only at football but at the workings of a small American town in 1950. Most of the main characters in the novel are male, and both the plotline and cover art suggest that young adult males are the primary audience for the book. Red is a memorable character who deals with substantial obstacles in his school and personal life. It’s tough to have the energy for football drills when you don’t even have enough to eat. Within the novel, Red comes to understand that he has to truly work at finding the determination, stamina and courage needed to deal with his situation. He is forced to take on more responsibility than most teens his age and manages to have the fortitude to accomplish what has to be done.

     Most of the other characters are the boys on the team, coaching staff and school staff. There is, however, a love interest in the novel between Red and Angie although the town frowns on any Anglo-Mexican relationships. This is a town divided, with different days at the swimming pool for Anglos and Mexicans, for example. Yet, despite obvious segregation between the groups, the school is integrated and so, therefore, is the Muckers football team. This integration is portrayed at times as a division on the team and yet also a source of strength for them.

     Wallace explains in a note at the end of the novel that the story is based on the true story of Jerome, Arizona, and tells readers that her lifelike and believable tale of the Muckers team comes from research she was able to do when she found actual letters from boys on the team written to the man who was the principal of the high school at the time. She was also able to use local newspapers for background material. The novel is steeped in historical facts thanks to this. The year 1950 finds America just after the end of World War II and just on the brink of the Korean War. Both have major roles in the novel as Red’s brother is killed during World War Two and one of Red’s classmates joins up and heads to Korea during the novel. Wallace also alludes to the Communist scare at the time and illustrates this with one of the teachers who keeps a special box into which people can place the names of those they feel might have Communist sympathies. Wallace clearly understands the historical details and social issues of the time period, and this gives the setting of the novel authenticity.

     At various spots in the novel, Wallace adds excerpts from The Verde Miner which not only include news stories about the closing of the mine and about the football season of the Muckers but also a variety of short items which help readers understand the social fabric of the town - for example who has been arrested for some misdemeanor, who has recently been taken to hospital, or the fact that the town will have a fundraiser in order to raise money to repair a roof leak at the church. As well, there are various want ads which give readers a sense of the despair felt by many as furniture, vehicles and even whole homes are put up for sale. These newspaper excerpts truly give readers insight into the era and the town and help them feel like they are actually living there along with the characters of the novel.

     Some of this historical accuracy may not be important to, or understood by, young adult readers, but they will nevertheless enjoy the football action of the book. There is also racial tension, the tension of a town where jobs are being lost and families broken apart, and the tension of a love interest between people of different ethnic backgrounds. This may not provide edge-of-your-seat excitement but will, nevertheless, keep readers interested as the novel progresses. It is natural to root for the underdogs, and Wallace constructs a story in which readers will feel they personally know many of the Muckers team members and will fight along with them in order to achieve a seemingly impossible miracle.


Ann Ketcheson, a retired high school teacher-librarian and teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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