I’ll admit I wasn’t sure that this book about early female footballers would be my cup of tea, but it’s actually a stunning piece of WW1 fiction for middle grade readers.
Book: Our Beautiful Game by Lou Kuenzler
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Faber Childrens. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: misogyny; sickness from working in munitions; injury, including off-page amputation and scarring, and death, including major character death and death of a sibling; grief; PTSD with on-page panic attack; explosions; general discussion of war and death; childbirth. It’s a hefty list but nothing is age-inappropriately described.
A stand-out novel inspired by the incredible true stories of female football legends like Lily Parr and Alice Woods.
They can take our ball, but they can never stop the game.
Polly Nabb is no stranger to trouble.
When her brother Joe is sent to serve in the trenches, all Polly wants is to kick a ball about and forget the war. Mam has other ideas, and makes her stay home to help with endless chores. But football is something Polly is prepared to fight for – it’s her life! She’s determined to do whatever it takes to fulfil her dream and show the world that football is not just for boys . . .
The war years: a time of trailblazing female footballers, like the legendary Lily Parr, who played to sell-out crowds. Polly’s dramatic wartime story celebrates those bold young players who changed attitudes to women on the pitch and salutes the unsung heroes on the Home Front too.
As I said above, I thought that this was going to be very focused on the sport side of things, and as such wouldn’t be terribly interesting to me, but I’m pleased to say that I was totally wrong. Although there is plenty of football plot, it’s woven incredibly skilfully into a wonderful tale of the young women who worked in the munitions factories of WW1, creating an incisive view of growing up in a time of enormous tragedy. It covers everything from gender identity (Polly’s struggles with being ‘feminine’) to poverty to casual misogyny to the paralysing grief of seeing the young men you love go off to fight. It somehow manages to be a feel good story of feminism and an insightful and often painful social history at the same time. In addition to that, I actually found the football scenes enthralling, which really surprised me – far from being dry sporting stuff, they’re full of character work and I ended up really rooting for Polly and her team in each match.
There is tragedy in this book, and it’s one I’d only recommend for children old enough to discuss its themes maturely. I’m not ashamed to admit that it had me tearing up at some of the deaths; there’s a depth of characterisation in all the characters that makes it hard to let go of any of them. I liked that the story didn’t shy away from the reality of war; a large part of the story deals with Polly coming to terms with her brother going missing, and what that really means. This might be a tad spoilery, but I think it’s important to discuss so that you know what kind of book it is: the narrative is very aware of the urge to have a happy ending, and actively explores the tension the reader feels as the end of the book approaches, thinking, ‘he must be coming back soon, surely’. But there are few pat endings like that in real life, and it takes a very sensitive and well-crafted book to tackle that impulse to believe in a happy ending without being deliberately cruel or tragic. I thought the end of the story was both sad and uplifting, and I think that sums up the whole thing: there are moments of joy, and moments of tragedy, and Our Beautiful Game captures them all.
It feels so realistic in its depiction of working-class women in WW1 – Polly’s mum is only a side character in the very start and end of the story, and still her story will stick with me. The juxtaposition of Polly’s poor, but loving, home life, surrounded by siblings, with her time spent in Clara’s middle-class home, where Clara is an only child, is stunningly written, with tiny details that speak so loud. If this were a fantasy book I’d compliment the worldbuilding for how well each character’s upbringing is visible in their actions and surroundings. As it is, it’s a wonderful slice of history that feels as real as it possibly could.
I’m just so impressed, honestly. This should be read in every classroom when dealing with the history of Britain in WW1. It’s really stunning, and I’m ever so glad it fell through my letterbox – I would not have picked this up otherwise, and I would really have missed out. I hope it goes on to be a classic. Five out of five cats.