Sandra Neil Wallace's historical fiction novel "Muckers" (Random House/Knopf; Oct. 8, 2013) is based on the true story of the 1950 Jerome Muckers football team and its championship season that rallied the town and turned tragedy into a triumph. The inspiring yet heartbreaking novel delves deep into the rocky terrain of a racially divided Arizona town and a team whose world is suddenly upended, widening the rift between Anglos and Mexican Americans forced to choose between cohesion or rebellion.
In "Muckers," Red O'Sullivan's life is crumbling around him: the mine that employs most of town is on the brink of closing, threatening to shutter the entire town. Red will be part of the final graduating class of his high school, but he'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.
Wallace discovered the true story behind her novel several years ago while covering the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury games for ESPN. She was living in Sedona and fell in love with the nearby mining town of Jerome. While doing research at the town's historical society, she found a box of memorabilia donated by Jerome High School's last principal. It included a trove of heartfelt letters from students that told of racial tensions still relevant today, the impact of the closing of the mine and the school, and former students' experiences in World War II and Korea.
"The story would have remained buried in the hearts of the few Muckers players who are still alive and scattered like tumbleweeds across desert towns if I hadn't opened that box," says Wallace.
The letters put Wallace on the trail of an incredible sports story. As the smallest team in Arizona--and one of the few that included both white players and Mexican Americans--the 1950 Jerome Muckers played on a field made of gravelly slag cast off by the mine's smelter. They battled through an undefeated season that included the sudden death of their coach to become champions. The school closed months later, so the season was mostly forgotten.
But Wallace couldn't forget the team's triumph or the political turmoil of 1950 Arizona. "I pored over newspaper archives from Phoenix to Jerome to capture the mood and the political situation," she says.
The novel is set in fictional Hatley, Ariz, but finds its inspiration in Jerome. Wallace interviewed former players, sifted through hundreds of newspaper articles, and spent countless hours on location in the abandoned high school, the mining area, and the winding streets of the mile-high tourist town.