Friday, August 15, 2014

Anne Mateer's "Playing by Heart" - an inspiring tale of the American Homefront in WWI

Cover ArtSet on the Homefront of World War One, Anne Mateer's novel captures the changing times in a fascinating story.  Putting her old reputation of flightiness behind her, Lula Bowman is on track for a PhD in mathematics, with the help of a prestigious scholarship and a job teaching college math.  However, a tragedy calls her back to her hometown to help her sister, and she is trapped into staying the rest of the school year with no other recourse but to accept jobs as a music teacher, girls' basketball coach, and church pianist - a far fall for an academic scholar.  The boys' basketball coach, Chet Vaughn, finds himself for the first time not running away from a single, young female, but the proud woman is hard to reach, in spite of her desperate need for his help in coaching basketball.  One of the few single young men remaining in the town, Chet's obligations have kept him from enlisting and fighting in the Great War, and he wonders if God doesn't have a bigger plan for him here than he expected.  The question is, is Lula part of that plan, or will she return to college like she wants when the school year is up?

Written in an uncommon style, the story is told entirely in first person, but the viewpoint trades back and forth between Lula and Chet.  I was surprised when the viewpoint switched over in the second chapter, though not confused since the change is denoted in the chapter headings.  I like how the style makes the characters' feelings more personal, and it offers a pleasant change from the more traditional points of view. 

Family dynamics and family dysfunction, grief and loss, healing, chasing dreams - all play a role in this deep novel, molding together in a rich story without overwhelming the reader.  Neither Lula nor Chet is perfect, and like in real life, their lives are hardly ideal.  An afterthought in a large family, Lula feels she will never grow up in the eyes of her older siblings, and by their standards she can never do anything right.  Chet's father died in scandal years ago, and his mother has long favored his brother over him.  Both Lula and Chet have chosen an unconventional path, and in that similarity they form a connection. 

Lula has fallen into the trap of seeking the approval of man - her only remaining parent - over God, inadvertently building a house on sand instead of the solid rock.  New dreams, designed to capture her father's heart and approval, shoved aside the old dreams that her mother had encouraged.  Now back in her hometown, Lula is forced to confront what she left behind years ago and, more importantly, to face that the foundation she built is crumbling. 

With such a wealth of inspiration in this story, it was hard to choose just a few topics to write about.  It was fun to discover that this story has a basis in the author's family history - that a grandmother really did get stuck coaching basketball with almost no knowledge of the game.  This is the first book that I have read by Anne Mateer, and I am impressed by her solid work.  5 out of 5 stars!

The subject of my work wasn't as important as the act of doing it well. Giving it my all. Seeing it through to the end. (Playing by Heart, pg. 252)

Thank you Bethany House and NetGalley for providing a free e-copy for the purpose of review; I was not required to make it positive, and all opinions are my own. 

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