Frank McGee was a Canadian hockey star during the early years of the 20th century, and, according to the cover copy of this book, “the only legitimate Hall of Fame athlete of any sport to be killed in action fighting for his country.” Killing Frank McGee is a fictionalized account of McGee's near-miraculous prowess as a hockey star (he was blind in one eye and only 5' 6" yet scored prolifically), and his considerably less extraordinary death in the trenches of France during World War I.
Interestingly, Reddick chooses to tell McGee’s story not through the athlete’s own thoughts or words, but rather through those of the novel's two narrators, Alf Smith and Billy Kinnear. The result is an unusual sort of character sketch in which the context and surroundings are clearly pictured, but the man at the center remains a bit of a mystery.
Those surroundings, though, are dense and vividly described. On the home front, we’re treated to a startling close-up of Smith, an Ottawa Hockey Club coach and player-coach whose disdain for the privileged classes (including the McGee family of which his teammate Frank is a member) is matched only by his single-minded determination to win the Stanley Cup. Through Smith’s opinionated musings, the era’s economic, social and class terrain, as well as the hockey culture of the time, come to life.
If Alf Smith shows us the Canada that created Frank McGee, Billy Kinnear, a young, sensitive, working-class man from rural New Brunswick, brings us the war that kills him. Through Kinnear, Reddick renders not only the blood, mud, stench and deafening thunder of trench warfare, but also the humanity of the soldiers who cling not so much to life, which they cannot hope to grasp, as to spirit.
Up to the moment of his death and beyond, McGee remains that mystery, that blank slate upon which we, or Kinnear, or any of his other fans and followers may draw what they will. An unusual way to portray your protagonist, perhaps, but isn't it rather in keeping with the way the rest of us "mere mortals" tend to view our star athletes and war heroes?