The first half of 2020 has been a disaster for field hockey enthusiasts, especially supporters of the USWNT. After a disappointing start with three straight losses in the FIH Pro League, the corona-19 virus forced the cancellation of the series. We do not know at present when and how school and NCAA field hockey will be played this fall. But a small mercy—thus far it has been as great year of reading about our sport. So far I’ve read Fiona Campbell’s No Number Nine, Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks, and now Siobhan Vivian’s We Are the Wildcats. Comparing these three novels brings out the splendid variousness of the sport. Campbell’s is international hockey, culminating at the Olympic Games. Both Quan and Vivian write about American high-school field hockey. Though their settings are similar, the two books belong to quite different genres. We Ride Upon Sticks is clearly intended for the audience for “literary” fiction, so while most of the characters are teenagers in the 1980s, the setting in Danvers, neighboring Salem, Massachusetts is heavily reliant on the mythology of the Salem witch trials of the 17th century. We Are the Wildcats is a YA featuring a common theme of the genre, the moral superiority of teenagers (especially girls) over corrupt and manipulative (especially male) adults.
I had hoped for another story with the intensity of Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, and to some extent Vivian delivered. Both feature a triangle of two high-school BFFs and a demanding coach who wants a state championship and drives the team to their limits to excel. Abbott’s sport was competitive stunt cheerleading, Vivian’s field hockey. Her team is the West Essex Wildcats, and as with Abbott’s Sutton Grove Eagles, we never learn their precise location. The BFFs are Melanie Gingrich and Phoebe Holt, a forward and a midfielder who make a deadly goal scoring combination. Coach is a handsome twenty-something who is supposed to have played on the US men’s national team and imagines himself too good for high-school coaching. Last season the Wildcats were runners up for state championship when Mel failed to score, Phoebe was out with a torn ACL and Kerson, seconded from the JVs to replace her, flopped. (It was a nice touch to witness the Schadenfreude of Kerson’s former JV teammates.) Then Ali the goalkeeper allowed Oak Knolls to score the winning goal. Coach is determined that not happen again.
The girls on the team believe his connections are vital to getting scholarships. As in many contemporary novels, much of the narration is conducted by text messaging. As the new season opens, Coach appoints Mel team captain, but she is also Coach’s favorite and throughout the book we share their secret messages. We also discover Coach is developing a new favorite, Luci, who’s just made varsity as a freshman. The Wildcats are commencing their new season with a scrimmage, a “friendly” match against their arch-rivals the Oak Knolls Bulldogs. By tradition the night before the opening game is given over to a “Psych-up” sleepover at the home of the Wildcat captain, who will give the newly chosen varsity team their uniform shirts. But this year Coach doesn’t deliver the shirts, and the girls embark on their own midnight rambling team-building effort, leading to a shocking revelation that Coach has been deceiving and betraying them.
Like West Essex, the universities to which the Wildcats aspire are imaginary. Coach is supposed to be an alumnus of Truman University. Its location is undisclosed, but apparently far enough away to require a plane flight for a campus visit (Mel has already been offered a scholarship) and almost but not quite Ivy League: I’d imagine like Duke or Northwestern. “Their field hockey team produced nationally ranked players, many of whom, like Coach, went directly into the Olympic pipeline.” That “like Coach” rang with a large clunk. Although Coach is supposed to have played Division I field hockey in college, there are no American universities with intercollegiate field hockey programs; unfortunately it is exclusively a women’s sport.
There is a poorly supported professional USMNT; if possible its players train overseas.) As there is very little actual hockey playing in We Are the Wildcats, but I couldn’t help wondering what members of Vivian’s audience would make of Mel and Phoebe’s game strategy.
“Okay! So you and I are going to make a run at the Oak Knolls goal with the kind of intensity we’d have if the clock were about to run out and it was our last chance to score. Except we’re going to do it immediately after the face-off.”
“Assuming you win the face-off,” Phoebe teases.
Mel swats her. “I always win the face-off! Anyway. Instead of passing the ball forward, I’m going to hook the ball sideways to you. Then you and I will sprint straight up the field, full throttle, crisscrossing passes as we go. I’m imagining three total, like boom boom boom, with your last one hitting me right at the top of the key. And then I’m going to fire off a shot, as hard as I can, with everything I’ve got.”
Seeing “face-off” and “key,” a YA field hockey player might wonder if Mel and Phoebe think they’re playing ice hockey, men’s lacrosse, or basketball. Since the 1980s, face-offs, or bullies as they’re termed in field hockey, are rare, mostly replaced by a push-back for starting or restarting games. And the goal-scoring zone is a 15 yard semi-circle in front of the goal cage called the “scoring circle” or “the D” and not the “key.” One also wonders what the Oak Knolls defenders and goalkeeper would be doing while Mel and Phoebe were passing the ball back and forth, boom boom boom.
Siobhan Vivian missed an opportunity to accomplish for field hockey what Megan Abbott did for cheer. Readers could have come away aware of the beauty and intricacies of the game. If Coach had been a woman, like Coach French in Dare Me, her backstory as a Truman University alumna who went on the play for the USWNT would have been entirely plausible. She could actually have played division I field hockey at an elite university like Truman is supposed to be. Surely, a woman coach could be equally prone to favouritism, self-centeredness, and manipulative behavior as any male. And from an artistic POV would be more plausible, realistic, and accurate with respect to American school sport.
The ignorance of the game We Are the Wildcats betrays is especially unhappy because Vivian wastes an opportunity to display for YA readers who do not have the good fortune to play field hockey—either because they live in the wrong states or are wrong sex—what an exciting international sport it is, very demanding physically, fast and constantly moving, and requiring the most selfless teamwork from the whole squad (quite unlike Mel and Phoebe’s game plan in this book). Some games really are morally and spiritually better than others, and I believe field hockey, whether played on the school, university, club or international level, is amongst the very best.