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Muckers    by Sandra Neil Wallace order for
by Sandra Neil Wallace
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2013 (2013)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Sandra Neil Wallace's Muckers is a story of the triumph of the ultimate football underdogs. It's set in 1950 in Hatley, Arizona, and based on the true story (see the Author's Note at the back of the book) of 'Jerome, Arizona, a mountain town that was once a billion-dollar copper camp in the rugged north of the state'.

The title refers to those who shovel 'loose rock or muck into the mine core', and is also the name of the high school football team. Our hero is red-haired Felix 'Red' O'Sullivan, the sad-eyed quarterback whose beloved older brother Bobby (a star quarterback for Hatley High) died in 1945 at Iwo Jima. His Maw has been hospitalized in a mental ward at the Eureka Copper Miners' Hospital since then and his Pop has a serious drinking problem. Felix has to constantly scrounge for food as there's rarely any at home, nor does his abusive father often show up there.

Hatley practices its own form of apartheid - Gringos, Italians and Mexicans keeping to their separate 'places on the hill' - but the small football team is racially mixed. Red's best friends are Cruz (also on the team) and Rabbit (who writes about it in the Pick & Shovel). Though his father is absent from Red's life, he looks up to two key father figures - Coach and Principal Mackenzie. Which is a good thing as there's huge pressure on Red this football season - the mine's about to close and everyone is desperate for a win, because 'the only thing worse than losing is being forgotten.'

Red has fallen hard for Cruz's sister Angie but they have to meet secretly. One of their teachers, Sims, has 'a pickle up his butt' about Commies, and Rabbit enlists to fight them. Ornery Father Pierre is a bully who abuses his position. All these plot threads advance as the football team wins one game after another, each of them a challenge. Then Coach, who suffered war wounds, has a head injury. It's down to the wire as this 'ghost town' battles for the state football title.

This kind of underdog football team story is not new. But while the sport is at its heart, this book addresses many tough issues, from dealing with loss and grief to deep-seated prejudice and racism. Muckers is an outstanding, thought-provoking coming of age novel, highly recommended.

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