Lynn: There’s nothing I love more than an underdog story and Sandra Neil Wallace has given us a terrific one in Muckers (Random/Knopf 2013). While researching another story about Jerome, Arizona, Wallace came across a box containing, among other things, letters from past students to Lewis McDonald, the much-loved principal of the Jerome high school. Those letters were the heart of this imagined story set in fictional Hatley, Arizona and based on the true event.
Take one played-out mining town in 1951 Arizona. The mine is closing, the school is closing and this is the last season for the Muckers. They are small, ill-equipped, short of subs and play on a field made of slag from the mines. They are the one remaining hope for their battered town and the focus of their hopes is Red, the scrawny quarterback trying valiantly to fill the shoes of his brother Bobby, who was killed at Iwo Jima. Bobby led the last championship effort which only fell short in the last game and his death is felt by the entire town but especially by his family. Red’s mother has suffered a mental breakdown and his father drinks heavily and neglects Red. The hopes of the entire town weigh heavily on Red.
The sports and football scenes are wonderful and that story alone would have carried the book for me but Wallace has done a lot more. It is 1950 and the issues of segregation, anti-communist paranoia and the Korean War all loom as large as the mountains over the town. Wallace does a wonderful job of portraying a time and place. She uses small but uniquely wrought details to bring the town and its culture into sharp focus. When a Mexican-American teammate shows up with Red for the regular service instead of at the “Mexican Mass,” the prejudiced priest asks for the “long-handled spoon” so he won’t have to touch Cruz while giving communion. One of the teachers keeps a “communist box” where he puts names of people he suspects of “not sharing our democratic ideals.” In a time of segregation, Hatley High School is not segregated and the team is the one thing that draws everyone together. This is a story of beating the odds, of hope, of genuine humanity and terrific football action all in one memorable package.
Don’t miss the Author’s Note that is as interesting as the rest of the book, in which Wallace talks about discovering this story and how she came to write this book. Hand this to sports fans looking for something both different and authentic and to historical fiction devotees. This one’s a winner.