Stephen Guinan, We Are the Troopers: The Women of the Winningest Team in Pro Football History, Hachette Books. Hachette (2022). ISBN 0306846934.
Rather than try to explain what the book is, the Publisher’s notes do a far better job than I could:
Before the protests and the lobbyists, before the debates and the amendments, before the marches and the mandates, there was only an obscure advertisement in a local Midwestern paper and those who answered it, women such as Lee Hollar, the only woman working the line at the Libbey glass factory; Gloria Jimenez, who grew up playing sports with her six brothers; and Linda Jefferson, one the greatest, most accomplished athletes in sports history. Stephen Guinan grew up in Toledo pulling for his hometown football team, and—in the innocence of youth—did not realize at the time what a barrier-breaking lost piece of history he was witnessing. We Are the Troopers shines light on forgotten champions who came together for the love of the game.
Amid a national backdrop of the call to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, the National Women’s Football League was founded as something of a gimmick. However, the league’s star team, the Toledo Troopers, emerged to challenge traditional gender roles and amass a win-loss record never before or since achieved in American football. The players were housewives, factory workers, hairdressers, former nuns, high school teachers, bartenders, mail carriers, pilots, and would-be drill sergeants. Black, white, Latina. Mothers and daughters and aunts and sisters. But most of all, they were athletes who had been denied the opportunity to play a game they were born to play.
I wish we actually had gotten that story, told competently and engagingly.
Instead, we received a bloviating 200-plus-page features article; a grim march of distracting incessant detail, two-dimensional characters, and something that could have been written as a labor of love or to cynically cash in on America’s recent obnoxious obsession with immutable biological traits.
The fact that it took too long to realize that this was not just another rote Strong Woman does Mr. Guinan’s craft no credit.
I want my prejudices known upfront. I have two, and they are instructive for this review.
- I really wanted to like this book. The premise is amazing: a bunch of hard-scrabbled “broads” in Toledo factories, escaping tough times, tough lives — and changing social mores — by suiting up and playing some football? That’s a kick-ass story I think people would actually read. That’s a John Mellencamp anthem. It’s certainly not Girl Boss No. 381 that has appeared in practically every single piece of modern popular entertainment for the last decade. It’s a visceral story, because it’s a real story. There is no need to go in search of wrongs to right; the wrongs were manifest and often codified into law — half of this team couldn’t even legally sign a contract on their own behalf. To see that group of women punch the clock then suit up and become the winningest team in pro football history? Provided it was executed well, it could have been a generational, inspirational story for women and girls everywhere. For lovers of sports, it would be a great moment to learn a minor but important inflection point that has been lost to the past. But that execution is a very important proviso. Such subject matter could easily devolve into a sermon as much as anything. It would need to be engaging, brisk, speak to an audience of sports fans and football fans, be accessible to teen readers and women of all backgrounds — be as accesible to a diverse readership as the women of the Toledo Troopers were.
- I despise features writing. Those 15,000-word essays in New York Magazine? They make me want to pull my teeth out. It’s not that the writing is bad, per se. It is that far too often such writing is done to attract editors, to wow the power brunch intelligentsia and Manhattan literati, and especially to impress other features writers.
The reason I set forth my biases is so that you can make an informed choice as to whether to give this review credence at all, and if so, how much. Because the simple fact is that this book is a tedious slog; one that not only made me dislike it, but at times actually loathe it. That loathing would grow so intense that after reading a full half of it, I could not finish the rest.
Was it the subject matter? No, not at all. Nor was there an abandonment of narrative in favor of boring, tendentious 21st century political sensibilities. No, the reason I grew to hate reading this book was the writing.
As a native Toledoan, one gets the sense that Guinan really enjoys the subject matter, enjoys sharing his hometown history, and enjoys unearthing an important-but-forgotten slice of Americana. Troopers is equal parts aging Gen X reminiscence, amateur historiography, and sport archaeology. It is a labor of love.
But lost in that love is that far too often he hasn’t the faintest notion of how to connect the material to the target audience. It was a recurring problem I would have throughout, as I found myself thinking, “who is this book for?!” Because it seemed like the only love that really shone was Guinan’s love for his own voice.
The book aims far too often for a clever turn of phrase rather than simply telling a story.
I find I can not do it justice. Allow the author’s own words to illuminate our path. What follows is an important moment in the book, during a very dark moment for one of the many protagonists we are introduced to...and you’d absolutely never know it.
The entire book is written that way — page upon page of unwieldy description, of disjointed dialogue, of zeroing in on the pine needles rather than the trees (and forget about remotely seeing the forest). It is the original sin of features writing, and is one that violates the first premise of storytelling. And it is repeatedly flouted in this book.
If the key element to spinning a good yarn is “show, don’t tell,” then Troopers is objectively bad storytelling, because it is nothing but show; it is nothing but setting the scene, yet never interacting in the world space.
Details are crucial in world-building, sure. But in a story about the lives of actual human beings, we should get a sense of who these women are. We do not. We should know what makes them tick through their actions, not merely from the assurance of the author. We don’t know who any of these interchangeable women are at their heart, and that is on Guinan. But we do know intricate details on the manufactured specs of a Plymouth Fury, of a space heater, of a factory floor, of Toledo mud. You have a difficult time immersing yourself in the tale — much less in believing the story is real or feeling anything — because no one here seems to be a living, breathing, three-dimensional person with their own pain, pathos, pride, and pith.
Perhaps I was being too uncharitable? Perhaps the book needed fresh eyes once we arrived at the meat of the story, the football?
Not only would that hope prove fleeting, it would be shattered. If anything, the “action” scenes are somehow even more of a difficult trek through the remnants of the poor dead tree that gave its life for this:
This was the moment I simply gave up.
“Who is this book for,” I asked? It’s not for football fans. It’s not for the high school-educated women of working class Toledo. It’s not for lovers of history. It’s not a tool to inspire that little girl in your life, or jog your mom’s memory of the ERA days.
If one were being nasty, one could say that Guinan wrote this to impress others in a circle of like-minded auteurs; that it is an indulgent exercise in self-love. Or that it was written to capitalize on a gender- and racially-obsessed online world.
I will not presume such bad faith.
But, I will be cynical.
Troopers isn’t a book. It’s a Netflix pitch.
It wasn’t written to be read; it was written to be optioned. This is a screenplay, populated by amorphous ciphers, because a Hollywood director can then take license to build whatever character they wish. All those details? They are stage directions; the tranche de vie is there to spin a gossamer skein of “realism” to be draped over whatever golem Patty Jenkins or Ron Howard construct to support it.
That’s the real answer. And if that truly is the case, then I hope someone far more proficient in storytelling purchases the rights...and I will just watch the show instead. There is likely a very fascinating story hidden in here. But I doubt seriously that you can make the arduous journey through this book.
I could not.