Have you seen the United States of YA list? It’s a map with a book representing each state, and Knights of the Hill Country was Oklahoma. I liked what I saw, so I decided to read it. I enjoyed it, although it’s far from a perfect book.
The story is very simple: Hampton lives and breathes football. Everyone, including himself, thinks that being a football player is all there is to him. No one bothers to see the boy behind the talent because he wins games and that’s all that matters. He’s rapidly becoming the star of the team, even outshining his best friend and quarterback, Blaine. But his new status also forces him to see beyond the football field. It gives him some insight into what he wants and the tools to stop being so passive.
If I had to describe Hampton in two words, I would say guileless and naïve. He’s so comfortable on the football field that he feels like he can stop time, and sees things so clearly, is almost a supernatural ability. But outside the field he’s everything but confident. He has a hard time expressing himself, he’s slow in class and his friends make fun of how awkward he is around girls. His father left them when he was a kid, and his heartbroken mother decided to move to a different town because she couldn't deal with the memories. That move changed his life when he met Blaine and was introduced to football. They became inseparable, with Hampton always under his friend’s shadow, something they both were perfectly fine with. But when their roles shift, Blaine isn't as happy.
It’s an interesting story about how sports can consume a devoted town, and how unrestrained passion can drive young people to become better and excel, but also damage them irrevocably. I think the book tries to teach us a lesson, but it doesn't succeed because Hampton is the wrong character for it. To me, Blaine was more interesting, and would have been a fantastic main character. I found his part of the story very tragic and compelling, because he is the kid who truly cares about football, and whose career won’t extend beyond high school. Hampton was passionate about football, but he didn't need it as much. He doesn't start that way, and learning that life is more than football is part of his journey, but I never felt like he was as pressured to succeed as Blaine was.
As I said before, Hampton is naïve. He’s very likeable, but his extreme goodness and kind nature were so exaggerated that I never believed he was a real person. His rose-colored glasses give a light feel to what is a somewhat dramatic story. And I say somewhat because now that I think about it, he doesn't have to put any type of effort into making things work; everything magically resolves itself. As much as I liked him, I feel like his presence stripped the story of its potential complexity.
Football features prominently in the story, but I can’t say whether the portrayal was authentic or not, because I know next to nothing about the sport. What I can say is that once I finished the book, I felt like going to a game just to see what it’s all about.
It’s not a bad book, but is filled with missed opportunities. It’s very readable, and I enjoyed it. But it could have been more. I do want to give kudos to the author for giving Blaine depth and motivations. I didn't like his actions, but I could see where he was coming from, and I never saw him as a villain, even if that was his role in the book. As I said, he would have been a better main character.
One last thing, the dialect is very strong, and it’s used throughout the book. As with the football aspect of the story, I can’t say whether it was authentic or not, but it could be annoying for the reader. So don’t buy it without downloading the sample first.
Review by Brie
In a small Oklahoma town, one star linebacker must decide what kind of man he wants to be--both on and off the field.
Welcome to Kennisaw--where Friday night high school football ranks right up there with God and country, and sometimes even comes in first. This year, the Kennisaw Knights are going for their fifth straight undefeated season, and if they succeed, they'll be more than the best high school team in the eastern Oklahoma hill country--they'll be legends.
But the Knights' legacy is a heavy weight to carry for Hampton, linebacker and star of the team. On the field, he's so in control you'd think he was able to stop time. But his life off the field is a different story. His father walked out on him and his mom years ago, and now his mom has a new boyfriend every week. He's drawn to a smart, quirky girl at school--the type a star athlete just isn't supposed to associate with. And meanwhile, his best friend and teammate Blaine--the true friend who first introduced Hampton to football back when he had nothing else--is becoming uncomfortably competitive, and he's demanding Hampton's loyalty even as Hampton thinks he's going too far.
This unforgettable novel is the story of a boy whose choices will decide the kind of man he becomes, and raises powerful questions about sportsmanship, loyalty, and the deceptiveness of legends.
Knopf Books for Young Readers. August 22, 2006