REVIEW: When the Men Were Gone by Marjorie Herrera Lewis
Autumn: 1944: For the folks of Brownwood, Texas, the only thing more important than winning the war is—football!
It’s a man’s game, until now…
Football is the heartbeat of Brownwood, Texas. Every Friday night for as long as assistant principal Tylene Wilson can remember, the entire town has gathered in the stands, cheering their boys on. Each September brings with it the hope of a good season and a sense of unity and optimism.
Now, the war has changed everything. Most of the Brownwood men over 18 and under 45 are off fighting, and in a small town the possibilities are limited. Could this mean a season without football? But no one counted on Tylene, who learned the game at her daddy’s knee. She knows more about it than most men, so she does the unthinkable, convincing the school to let her take on the job of coach.
Faced with extreme opposition—by the press, the community, rival coaches, and referees and even the players themselves—Tylene remains resolute. And when her boys rally around her, she leads the team—and the town—to a Friday night and a subsequent season they will never forget.
Dear Ms. Herrera Lewis,
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this book. Since it’s based on a true story (though Tylene Wilson became the head football coach of Daniel Baker College in Brownswood, Texas, during World War II), would it be inspiring? Depressing? Boring? An attempt to translate “Friday Night Lights” to World War II? Who knew but I opened it with high hopes.
Football in Texas is close to a religion with some high schools having stadium facilities which colleges would envy. In small towns, there’s often little else to do so hometown enthusiasm is high. But now it’s 1944 and as Tylene thinks, most of the males over 18 and under 45 are off fighting for their country. The town has suffered losses and there are enough gold star mothers including Tylene’s best friend. That woman’s son had been the football coach before enlisting and now the team is looking for a replacement as Tylene helps her friend bury her son and Tylene’s godson.
After scanning every name in the phone book and canvassing fellow teachers, Tylene might have a replacement. Moose is a former player but his wartime experiences have changed him. Tylene promises help – she’s devised and diagramed plays since she was small and watching games with her daddy – but things don’t look good.
The principal and many others are seriously considering cancelling the season but Tylene has seen that once before – in 1918 – and fights to avoid it. After all, President Roosevelt’s famous announcement for the country to “play ball” when suggested that major league baseball shut down, has inspired people. Tylene has another reason though. If there’s no football season, then the seniors might be tempted to quit school and enlist. The town doesn’t need to lose any more boys to death. Their time might come next year but for now, if she can keep them there, they won’t be facing the horrors of war just yet.
With time running out before the first game of the season, will Tylene find the courage to step up and take charge? Will her family and friends support her? Will the town? And most importantly, will the boys she’s fighting so hard for accept her as their coach?
The book starts with scenes of Tylene learning to love the game as a child, encouraged by her daddy and often treated as a pet by the other men in the stands after she announces what play should have been run and how. The men might chuckle but they also acknowledge that the little girl knows what she’s talking about. Fast forward to 1944 and it’s another story. Watching Tylene run up against the tired arguments to keep a woman out of a man’s world is discouraging. But she’s got guts and determination.
What might initially seem to be little more than an assistant principal trying to rally the town behind their beloved football team for town spirit and tradition is actually much more. They’ve all seen the coffins coming back and attended the funerals. Tylene has comforted friends grieving over the loss of sons and sees it still hurting families and in some cases tearing at the fabric of marriages. This is way beyond mere “the game must go on.” For Tylene has suffered her own loss and as she tells Moose, grieving mothers will try to make sure that boys have the chances their own sons will never have.
There’s (well obviously) a lot about the game, the plays and preparation that goes into coaching. A lot of that is beyond what I know so I might have speed read through those paragraphs but the details about life in Texas 75-100 years ago were vivid without being text book. The reason Tylene’s daddy taught her so much about the game and the way he and her mother think about her made me smile. The opening game is riveting and an eye opener for a whole lot of people. But the final tribute her players give her and the reason behind it made me cry. Tylene has strength and courage and shows you don’t mess with Texas women. B