The Unstoppable Flying Flanagan
192pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99
Before Daisy Pearce, Darcy Veccio and Tayla Harris, even before Barb Hampson, Lisa Hardeman, and Debbie Lee, there was Maggie Flanagan.
Melbourne, 1942. So many husbands, fathers and brothers have enlisted including Maggie’s older brother Patrick, whom she idolises, although she idolises his football skills more and treasures the ball he left in her safe-keeping. Wherever she goes, when she is not at school, it is with her and she continually practises her skills, keeping a running commentary of an invisible game going in her head.
And so when the new parish priest inspires the Year 5/6 students at her very traditional Catholic school to hold a fund-raiser for the troops abroad, Maggie knows that the sew and bake stalls are not for her (and being a girl, she’s not allowed to enter the build-and-race billycart event) and so she decides to stage an all-female football match. But while women are slowly emerging from the domestic drudgery imposed on them by men who believe a woman’s place is, “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen” as they take over the roles left vacant by those who are now soldiers, playing football is not seen as something females do and so Maggie is faced with the enormous task of finding enough players to field two teams who not only have the skills but also the courage to stand up against the prejudice and ridicule. Can Carrots (as she is known to her dad, as I was to mine) prevail? Will her praying to the picture of Mary in Sister Gertrude’s office give her the people she needs? If she does, will they be allowed to play? Will there be enough people interested in watching to actually raise some money?
Inspired by a chance reading of a discarded newspaper on a train to Scotland, as much as this story is about Maggie’s struggles to find players as she contends with the fearsome Sister Gertrude, the bullying Mickey Mulligan and the disdain of her own female friends, it is also about having the courage to be yourself and follow your dreams in the face of such odds. Arena offers us Gerald whose dream is to sing and dance on stage; Elena who, of Italian heritage, is seen as a traitor even though she was born in Australia; Nora who seems to be the shadow of the haughty Frances but who has her own secrets, and a host of other “miss-fits” who make this such an engaging read for everyone. Who would think that Maggie would ever have any sympathy for Mickey Mulligan or that Grumpy Gaffney could save the day? What is Sister Clare’s secret?
While this is a fictional story, it was the courage and determination of the Maggie Flanagans of yesteryear who refused to be pigeon-holed, who refused to accept that they were less intelligent and less capable than men who paved the way for what is now not only the very successful AFLW but also for all those in what have been traditionally men’s sports and occupations. (Being the daughter of one such pioneer, I empathise with her strongly.) It’s a thoroughly researched, totally absorbing insight into a time not so long ago that is about so much more than footy that will appeal to independent readers who like historical fiction. As Maggie would say, “A-women.”