CM . . . . Volume XX Number 18 . . . . January 10, 2014
Del, in grade 11, is one of the younger members on his high school soccer team, the Cardinals. It's his second year on the team that has not lost a single match in almost three years. Above All Else begins with the final game of the season, a game against the Rebels. The pressure is always on since Coach and most of Del's teammates believe that winning comes "above all else." The score is tied in the second half of the game when Rom, one of the Cardinals' players, makes a tackle solely intended to take out an opposing player. Before the injured Rebels player is helped off the field, Doug, another Rebel, rushes Rom and a brief fight ensues. Both players are given penalties, and the game ends with the Rebels winning. After the game, Del and a teammate, Riley, meet up with Kira and Elsa (in the above excerpt). Riley remembers he forgot something at a nearby pizza parlor. When he runs back to get it, he discovers Rom lying unconscious in the parking lot. Rom has no idea who hurt him, but his injury will keep him out of the playoffs. As well, the police are called in. A number of the Cardinals want to punish whoever attacked their teammate. Doug, the Rebels' player, is their number one suspect. When it's time for the Cardinals to play again, Rom has been replaced by an excellent soccer player whose family has recently emigrated from France. Del finds out from Elsa that Doug lied to the police about his alibi. Also, one of Elsa's friends saw a couple of guys from the Cardinals watching the French boy play soccer and then speak with him. Elsa, therefore, believes that Rom was injured by one of his own teammates in order to bring in the new player. After some sleuthing and some good luck, Elsa and Del discover that Rom was indeed attacked by someone on his own team.
The plot of Above All Else is propelled by one coincidence after another, to the point that, at times, the story feels too contrived. For instance, on a first blind-date, Del learns that Elsa plays soccer too. Later he learns that she goes to the Rebels' high-school and that Doug, the player believed to have been Rom's attacker, is Elsa's brother's best friend. Elsa tells Del that her brother managed to find the weapon with which Rom was attacked and that she's sure it belongs to Riley's dad. There are two chase scenes (the first between some opposing team members and a few unrelated gang members) in a deserted mall. The second – more predictable and, therefore, less exciting – felt unnecessary, except that it brings Del and Elsa to the spot where they spy Riley and follow him to another Cardinals player's house where all is quickly revealed.
Most of the supporting and peripheral characters in Above All Else are convincingly sketched. Del's coach likes playing mind games and winning. He tells his players, "Not only is losing not an option, it's not even a possibility." To varying degrees, older players Oz, Rom, and Jared buy into coach's mantra: winning comes above all else. Elsa's behaviour is less understandable, but on the whole, she seems to represent the voice of reason and fair-mindedness. Del is a bit of a mystery himself. Readers learn that he doesn't appreciate the winning above all else attitude of his coach and teammates. But, beyond that, his actions seem to be dictated more by coincidence than personal belief. For instance, after telling Elsa that he won't repeat any of a possibly incriminating conversation about Doug that he's overheard between her and her brother, he does just that, paraphrasing part of it with some of his teammates. Even after he, Elsa, and Riley are sure of the player who actually attacked Rom, it isn't until the second-last chapter in the book – when Del asks Rom if he smelt and recognizes the attacker's cologne – that Del takes matters into his own hands and tells his coach what he knows. It is somewhat ironic when, near the conclusion of the novel, Del observes that "the problem with trying to figure people out [is that you] never know what's going through their heads." In addition, the course of his relationship with Elsa isn't entirely credible. In the space of a few days, he goes from being "freaked out" by her height to intuiting that she actually wants to go out with Doug.
Above All Else is a fast-paced mystery with some excellent dialogue, action scenes, and an important message: one should not jump to conclusions and/or judge others until all of the evidence is in.
Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, teacher and writer of children's stories.
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