In the grand tapestry of history, it can be easy to lose sight of the individual threads that amass into the great picture, to forget that every epic is just a collection of intimate human stories. Perhaps with war, more than any other human endeavour, souls can disappear beneath the chrome veneer of troop movements, treaties and theatres of combat. But if war becomes about politics, rather than people, it will lose its horrifying relatability and be doomed to unfold again.
This is what makes Over the Line important, it is not a story about a war, but about a young lad who goes to one – the emotion and the humanity are always centre stage. It is penned by Tom Palmer and is another text that marks him out as a writer determined to find the soul within the soldier.
Over the Line is based on the real-life Footballers’ Battalion that took to the field (both sporting and fighting) during World War One. The unfolding events are told through the eyes of Jack Cock, a striker who made his professional debut shortly before signing up to go to the front. He excelled with a bayonet in his hand but also with a ball at his feet, representing the battalion at the Flanders Cup, a competition put on to entertain the troops when away from the trenches. The football and the fighting are given equal weight in both Jack’s mind and in the book’s narrative, with both matches and battles told in the same blow-by-blow commentary fashion.
To give into the classic football cliché, it is a book of two halves. Jack is an incredibly boyish character in the first part, which chronicles his emergence as a football star and his volunteering and training for the war. It is light and chipper in a classically English kind of way, with the conflict nothing more than a dark cloud on the horizon. However, it all suddenly turns midway through, sinking deep into the mud and blood of the trenches. Details of rats and gas and pushes over the top, sweep away the cup of tea, stiff upper lip nostalgia the reader had settled into.
Despite never shirking from the grim reality, the emotional impact of the atrocities witnessed feels quite muted. Perhaps it is left between the lines so that older readers can infer it, or maybe it is held back so as to open the book up to younger audiences. Either way, Jack never loses his cool, his temper or his perspective, even when witnessing injury and death, even when causing it himself. Palmer does nod to the personal fallout, with peripheral characters dealing with physical and psychological wounds after the return home. However, these always feel a step removed from Jack and from the reader.
Published by Barrington Stoke, Over the Line has their characteristic balance of high-interest content and accessible language. I can see it being a hugely popular text in years five and six, particularly with those who have struggled to engage with longer reads previously. Its short chapters and concise 160-page length will make it seem less intimidating and its fast pace will keep readers hurtling through.
In the end, Over the Line, shows how the human spirit can be sustained by its passions, even if the darkest of moments. After reading it, when children look back at the greatest events of history, they might just be able to imagine the boy or girl or man or woman standing and the centre and see how the great picture couldn’t be made without their one thread.
Tom Palmer talks about After the War with Nikki Gamble, In the Reading Corner
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