Over the Line by Tom Palmer
With all the current build up towards commemorating World War One, it seems only fitting I review this book. Tom Palmer is mostly known for his books about football and while I applaud his efforts in using football to get boys to read (and it is mostly boys), this is probably why I’ve never really read his books before, not being a football fan myself. However, this is so much more than just a book about football, and it’s actually more than just a book about World War One too I think.
It’s 1914 and Jack only really wants to be a professional footballer. But then war breaks out in Europe and despite it’s seeming so far away the pressure mounts, and Jack finds himself signing his name and volunteering to join the army. Whisked away to help fight on the frontlines, Jack soon finds that the realities of war are very different to the stories at home and Jack is thrown into a nightmare he’ll be lucky to survive.
Like I said before, I’m not into football and I’m not usually a fan of reading about wars. I found myself absolutely gripped by this novel though and I’m now rethinking reading some of those football-related books of Palmer’s I’d always avoided before.
The story opens with Jack, a young man (who we’re later told actually existed) who’s only 19 years old and a professional footballer with his whole career ahead of him. He’s playing his first match and it’s going brilliantly, when protestors appear on the pitch to urge young men to volunteer for the army and join up to fight in France. The war intrudes into Jack’s life and suddenly he’s being urged to join up on all fronts and not just on the pitch, being told that it’s his duty as a good young Englishman to fight. It’s poignant and a little uncomfortable, especially as Jack’s so young and away from home for the first time. He’s starting his dream job and scoring his first professional goals but he’s also jumping at the invitation to eat with his teammate’s wife because ‘I was glad she wanted to look after me, not pack me off to war’. It’s this constant pressure to sign up that really gets to you as a reader, especially as Jack so young, as young almost as this book’s readers.
Of course it wouldn’t be a book about World War One if it didn’t include the horrors we know of this particular war. In this respect, Palmer does it justice. I never realised just how exposed it was in some parts of the trenches, especially the look-out. I always thought it was soldiers hunkered in trenches and sometimes going over the top in a doomed attack. Pardon my language, but the look-out position sounds bloody terrifying and Palmer’s writing makes it really hit home. In a room with a cosy bedlight and a sitcom playing in the background, I felt as alone and exposed as Jack in his look out, poised on that deadly wartorn moonscape. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
This is not a book all about death though, oddly enough. It’s graphic no doubt and some particular scenes will always stand out in my memory (and they probably push this book towards the upper part of primary school maturity levels), but the main focus of the story is to show just how much a single thing can really drive you. In Jack’s case, it’s being worthy of whatever he receives. He’s put in charge of five men as a corporal, so he therefore has to make sure he does everything too that he asks of them. He’s been asked to fight for his country, so he should be worthy of being an inspiration to those at home he’s protecting. He’s playing for England, so he should be worthy of that. He should play hard, because of all the young men the Footballer’s Battalion are inspiring to sign up. I’m not a good enough writer to help but make it sound just as pressuring as the sense of duty Jack felt to join up at the start of the book, but in reality this is possibly one of the most upliftng books about war I’ve ever come across. It’s not all about pressure at all, it’s about duty and honour. Somehow Over the Line manages to leave you with a dry eye and a sense of hope, despite what you’ve read, and without carpeting the subject in flowers and roses. It’s truly astonishing and I have to applaud Palmer for this – it still makes me reel a little, that a book can be about something as depressing as World War One and yet leave you feeling not happy as such but still good at the end of it. I’ve no idea how he’s managed this but he has!
The fact that this is all based on a real footballer’s life, that the Footballer’s Battalion actually existed, is particularly useful if you happen to be a teacher or a fact-hungry reader too. The Reading War website has videos and resources related to this book available so if it didn’t pack enough of a punch on it’s own you’ve got even more to explore outsdie of the cover. Whether you use the website or not though I urge you to give this book a go, if you’re a football fanatic or a football-o-phobe like me. An amazing book and one I can’t wait to recommend.
Find Over the Line here.