Felix “Red” O’Sullivan’s world is crumbling around him: the mine that employs most of town is on the brink of closing, threatening to shutter the entire town and his high school with it. But Red’s got his own burdens to bear: his older brother, Bobby, died in the war, and he’s been struggling to follow in his footsteps ever since. That means assuming Bobby’s old position as quarterback and leading the last-ever Muckers team to the championship.
But the only way for the hardscrabble Muckers to win State is to go undefeated and tackle their biggest rival, Phoenix United, which would be something of a miracle. Luckily, miracles can happen all the time on the field.
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Thursday, August 10
In the distance, as we drive up from Cottonville, she looks like a pair of tanned knees. Sunburned and gnarled. Scraped bare from millions of years of abuse by the desert sun and now us.
But Cruz says the mountain above our town looks more like a woman lying down, tits up. One spread out, the other firm and pointy. I wouldn't know. I've never even seen tits up close. Well, maybe once. But that was by mistake during Mexican pool hours, looking for Angie. And I've certainly never felt them.
Anyway, the old prospectors christened her Nefertiti, after the Egyptian queen. And the mountain must have been beautiful once, back when she was covered in pine. That was some time ago, and none of us call her that anymore since Cruz came up with the nickname Nefer-titty.
Cruz pulls the Lucky Strike from behind his ear and lights it, nursing the convertible wheel with his knees and blaming Nefertitty's sagging on old age instead of the mine cave-ins. He points to the taller, perkier tit, in case me and Rabbit couldn't tell the difference.
We've been calling Sal "Rabbit" since second grade. Not that he's fast. No one's quicker than Cruz. Or because Rabbit's ever been with a girl either. (You know how rabbits can breed.) It's because of the harelip, which is why Rabbit can never look angry. It's as if the deformity's given him a moral compass somehow that stops him from doing anything halfway mean. Not even when he writes about our games in the Pick & Shovel.
Rabbit stretches for Cruz's cigarette from the backseat, but there's no way he'd smoke it. Instead, he makes a branding motion with the lit end toward the mountain, as if he's about to mark a steer. Because the other tit--the lopsided one--has a stone tattoo on it forming the letter H. We can take the blame for that. It's been a school tradition since '24 to brand the mountain with the spirit of good ol' Hatley High. That's when Principal Mackenzie led the Muckers to the Northern Crown. They nearly took the state, too, but those Phoenix refs had other ideas. Now we paint the H once a year no matter how we play, to keep the spirit of the town alive.
The stones get blasted out from the mine all day across Nefertitty's shoulder. Cut into stomach-sized chunks in the open pit by miners like Santiago, Cruz's father. That's how I know Hatley's problems have nothing to do with old age or one sagging boob.
It's because of what our fathers and their fathers before that have done to the mountain, poking a shaft into her seventy years ago and finding enough copper to fill her belly up with smoke. The way my pop still makes others do, shouting orders at Santiago and the powder monkeys to blast her skin off layer by layer until they get to the insides.
Rabbit's been watching the cigarette burn. He waits till there's about an inch of graying embers, then blows at it, spreading ashes all over the upholstery.
"You idiot! I just washed the car," Cruz says, snatching the cigarette back.
You'd think it was a diamond the way Cruz treats this old car since he won it off a miner. He puts up a howl and tries to smack Rabbit, but Rabbit leans far enough away and Cruz misses. That's the end of it. The light by the Tumbleweed gas station's up ahead, and Cruz slows down, not wanting to stop completely. We're in the middle of enemy territory: straddling both sides of us is Cottonville--the flat-chested community they built at the bottom of the mountain to process what we mine, and who we plan on beating the crap out of in football this year. Practice starts on Monday.
"Hang on," I tell Cruz, and get out of the car. I run up to the filling station and grab a newspaper off the top of the gas pump. The ones with two rocks on them are a couple days old and cost a penny instead of five cents. Benny from the diner lets me have them for nothing after game days, but that's still two weeks from now.
"What is it with you always wanting to read?" Cruz says, poking the Verde Miner with his elbow.
"That's how you find out things," I tell him.
"Oh yeah? Like what? Tell me something I don't already know."
"Well, it says here Ty's chickens are as tender as a mother's love. And that Peach Kellerman's been irrigating with the runoff. Says the cyanide helps his melons grow. He lost his wallet, too, walking into town."
"Again?" Cruz laughs. The slick's coming out of his hair. He smooths a hand over the black ends (which are brownish-black, really, like the feathers of a golden eagle caught by the morning sun). "And I bet Peaches can tell you what's in the wallet, no?" Cruz rubs a thumb and two fingers together. "Dollar bills." He smirks.
"There's houses for rent, too," I say, folding the paper and turning to face him. "Nine of them . . . up on Company Ridge." To me, that's a sure sign the mine really is going to close, but I can already tell Cruz isn't buying it. He takes a long drag, making the Lucky smolder red then a flickering orange before tossing it into the Cottonville dirt. And he still won't look at me.
"What?" Cruz finally mumbles. "Don't mean anything except higher-ups getting on Ruffner's bad side. And they always lose muckers on quits. What is it with you Anglos? Never staying in one place for too long."
"How much are the chickens?" Rabbit asks.
"What do you care, Rabbit? Your mom raises them," Cruz says.
"Yeah, and she only charges forty-three cents for a pound."
I tell Rabbit there's a number to call and find out how much, then give him the paper. Cruz hangs a left onto the switchback that takes us up to Hatley. Now the tits have become one. All we see is the H we're headed for. Cruz puts the Ford Deluxe in low gear, flooring the gas pedal to make it up the steep pitch. The revs reach into our guts and Cruz grins, nodding at the radio on the dash--his signal for me to turn it up.
You've broken your vow, and it's all over now So I'm movin' on.
Hank Snow's on the radio and it's all over now for me and Rabbit. It's Cruz's favorite song, only he can't sing.
"I bet he's got those rhinestones on right now, playing that song on the guitar!" Rabbit hollers from the back.
"They're not playing it right now while we're listening to it, stupid." Cruz blows a smoke ring at the rearview mirror. "It's a record. Huh, Red?"
"It's a recording," I say, not certain who to look at. "But it was done live. You know, like in the studio or on television or something."
I don't want to get into it or start an argument, so I look past Cruz's profile over to Deception Gulch. It cuts deep and red to the left of us three hundred feet below, where cactus are still blooming, even though it's nearly halfway through August and there's been no monsoon.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Red lives in a small Arizona town, one that will soon be just about shut down because the copper has been all been taken from the mine. This is the last year the town's high school will exist, making the final football season extra special. The Muckers don't have money for fancy equipment but they are tenacious, going the extra mile at practice to be the best at their sport. As the Muckers' quarterback, Red feels the weight on his shoulders; can he encourage his teammates to continue fighting their way into the win column? Add to that the racial tension in town--Red's best friend is Mexican American and Red has feelings for that young man's sister. Mexicans live in a different part of town from the rest of the town residents so hiding from everyone while feeling the bloom of young love is difficult. Red's family is almost in crisis mode--moving away, Red getting ready for college, the entire family still grieving the loss of Red's older brother a few years early at Iwo Jima. Based on the true story. An engaging story that unfortunately might be a tough sell to teens due to the timeframe in which the story is set.
There are two things that matter to the town of Hatley, Arizona: mining and football. And that's about it. In 1950, when the copper veins—the town's largest source of labor—begin to dry up and threaten to shut down not only the mine, but also the entire town, the future seems bleak with only the smallest feather of hope remaining: Hatley High School's football team's final season. Set in the grim, desperate backdrop of the Korean War during the second Communist scare, Muckers is a story about the team that had all odds against them, but still found a way to run and fight and survive through the muck—and emerge not only alive, but also triumphant. This is a football story, yes, but it's also a war story, as well as a family story, a love story, a personal story—a very real story. Red O'Sullivan is no stranger to wartime's tragic effects; the last war that swept the globe changed everything in his life, and this new one is about to do the same. As quarterback, he has a sense of dismay knowing his team's the smallest, scrawniest in Arizona, but it's certainly not the weakest—and that's what keeps him holding on, because it may be the only thing Hatley has left. The last time the town saw something so hopeful was when Red's older brother, Bobby, brought home the Northern title nine years back. Now, everyone's counting on Red to redeem the collapsing town, and this just may be his last shot. This book was really slow-paced, which had me skimming a lot; I feel it wouldn't hold the attention of younger readers well. However, I'm a huge fan of sports novels and so I refused to give in too easily, and in the end, I am so, so glad I did. Muckers combines Red's frank, but heartbreakingly tenacious narrative with local newspaper clippings of the time, to expose the untold, valiant history of the real-life Jerome Muckers. Wallace gives careful, stimulating attention to period detail and breathes life into the inspired fictional town of Hatley. There are so many different issues within this book that she handles well, including those on politics, race, the real meaning of family, teamwork, and never giving up; Muckers could really teach our middle and high schoolers about succeeding in even the most disadvantageous of circumstances, just by persevering. I was particularly intrigued by the origins of this novel, explained beautifully in the author's note. This football team literally had nothing left for them, but they fought hard to earn the only type of victory they could reach. The civil rights issues are interesting, as well; while most American high schools at this time were segregated, Jerome, and Hatley, were rare in that it was inhabited by both caucasians and Mexican-Americans. However, even though they all lived together, the racial tensions are still clearly prevalent, and the way the town manages to overcome them—even if only for the sake of the football team—is glittering, exultant. Pros: Raw; hits exactly the right notes // Moving story // Captures the genuine hopes and worries and fears of the age // Vibrant, distinct characters // Forbidden romance sidestory // Detailed, suspenseful sports fiction // Preserves the amazing Muckers football team in literature Cons: On the slow side // The writing style itself isn't particularly impressive Verdict: Friday Night Lights meets Remember the Titans in this highly-charged, visceral young adult novel that has both spirit and soul. Harrowing, eye-opening, and tenderly honest, Muckers masterfully recounts an inspiring story about how one resilient high school football team finds victory through enduring the tragic, unforgiving demands of war and the injustices of racial divide. Sandra Neil Wallace did a marvelous thing by digging up the forgotten letters and faded newspapers that made up this previously overlooked narrative, and bringing it to light. This is the kind of story that deserves a special spot in American football history. Fortunately, through this novel, the Hatley Muckers get the chance to prove themselves, while the real-life Jerome Muckers, in their blazing glory, get the chance to be remembered. Rating: 8 out of 10 hearts (4 stars): An engaging read that will be worth your while; highly recommended. Source: Complimentary copy provided by publisher via tour publicist in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you, Random House and TLC!).