As a gawky teenager in 1950s Philadelphia, Leoni Putzkammer dreams about being someone else: someone who is popular, self-assured, and never embarrassed by her family. She gets glimpses of that other someone, that other life, when her sometime-friend Cynthia invites her to dance on Bandstand. A disastrous ending to that outing leads to a moment of fame which then does change her life, as Leonie Putzkammer is recruited into the world of professional women’s wrestling. In the ring, she becomes Gwen Davies, “the Sweetheart,” who can be dramatic, athletic, loved and hated all at once. Leonie’s wild ride on the wrestling circuit is fraught with pain, injustice, raging hormones, and a wide-ranging cast of characters, all of whom lead her to a level of maturity and self-knowledge that she would never have reached, had she followed her father’s advice and stayed home.
The 1950s were the heyday of women’s wrestling, and Mirabella has clearly done her research, even including a cameo by real-life wrestler Mildred Burke. The diners, the drinks, the trainers, and the bouts themselves transport the reader to that golden age where wrestlers were either winners (heroes) or losers (heels). Leonie realizes the complexity and needs of her own character, both in and out of the ring, as she learns some of life’s hard lessons and makes bittersweet decisions about her future. Making and keeping friends has never been her strong suit, and that’s even more the case in this competitive world, where it’s easy to forget that a woman who’s tough in the ring can still be easily hurt by an unkind word from a boyfriend or fan. Mirabella’s story is engaging, at times funny and others painful, as we root for Leonie to triumph over her in-ring foes and her inner uncertainties.