If you spent the winter itching for spring weather so you could hit the pavement and run a few miles, then the book Girl Runner was written just for you! Ordinary readers (of the couch potato variety) will also enjoy this inventive, fictional tale with historical roots.
The book’s genesis can be traced to Canada’s “matchless six” who won gold in 1928, at the first Olympics in which women competed in track. This novel tells the captivating story of Olympic athlete Aganetha Smart, and all her achievements, struggles, and sacrifices. Snyder highlighted for me how difficult and necessary it was for women to step outside the acceptable societal boundaries and to challenge traditional notions of a women’s inferiority (whether on the sports field, in the class room, or in a work environment). Participation in Olympic marathon events was restricted to men until the 1980s. After 1928 the Olympic committee voted against girls competing at even the 800-metre distance as the distance was considered “too taxing for a girl’s inferior strength” (p.157). This ban and mindset lasted until 1960!
This book is more than a tribute to the joys and pains of running, it also poignantly captures the physical and mental decline of old age. At age 104 Aganetha is frail and confused, “struggling to remember the hour, the season, the whole of it, struggling to place myself in time.” Memories of her younger self are strong as the reader is introduced to a competitive tomboy filled with ambition and drive. Motion comes lightly to Aganetha Smart…it is her gift, and her claim to fame, and also what alienates her and fills her with restlessness. Aganetha, a country girl, is compelled by her own sense of adventure to visit her brother and sister who are working in the city of Toronto. Soon she is working in a factory and is invited to try out for a ladies track team that is training for the Olympics. Weaving back and forth through time, the reader is given delightful vignettes from Aganetha’s past that develop her iconic character, complete with great strengths and weaknesses.
The author introduces a romantic element to the novel, as Aganetha develops a relationship with Johnny, another Olympic athlete. The highs and lows of new love are adeptly captured, as well as the high price a relationship can have on a female athlete and her ambitions. The prevailing attitude was that you needed to stop running if you wanted to have children at any point. Aganetha laments:
Girls become wives – it’s what happens, it is the trajectory of our lives. Am I to be an ordinary girl after all, like Olive intends to be, when the right man asks her, like the girls at the factory, like every girl, everywhere? Am I to wind my fate up with the fortune of a man, and leave it at that? (p.221)
Despite the fact that Aganetha was a girl who rarely looked in the mirror, she photographed well. She liked seeing her picture in the papers (surviving mortality through them), and enjoyed the benefits of her short modelling career and living what she called a “borrowed life.”
There is a lot to love about this novel…its historical roots, the well-developed characters and relationships, the pearls of wisdom, the exploration of the personal turmoil of those in the spotlight, and the inspiring passion for running. Ultimately the book invites you to take a look at your own life to find or re-discover your own “passion” that will shake away any feelings of emptiness, and hopefully give each of us a life lived without regrets.
If you liked this book, I would also recommend:
Gold by Chris Cleave
In the tradition of his beloved previous novel, Little Bee , Chris Cleave again gives us an elegant, funny, passionate story about friendship, marriage, parenthood, tragedy, and redemption. This time, the setting is the upcoming London Olympics. Gold is the story of two women, Zoe and Kate, world-class cyclists who have been friends and rivals since their first day of elite training years ago. They have loved, fought, betrayed, forgiven, lost, consoled, triumphed, and grown up together. Now, on the eve of London 2012, their last Olympics, the two must compete for the one remaining spot on their team. In doing so, the women will be tested to their physical, mental and emotional limits. They will confront each other and their own mortality, and be asked to decide: What will you sacrifice for the people you love? – Publisher’s Summary
The world of high-performance athletics is changing forever. Not so long ago, you could compete at the top level with hard work and a good coach, but today, it’s impossible to separate the achievements of athletes from the scientists who support them. In Faster, Higher, Stronger , veteran journalist Mark McClusky brings readers behind the scenes with a new generation of athletes, coaches, and scientists whose accomplishments are changing our understanding of human physical achievement and completely redefining the limits of the human body. At the exciting new frontier of sports, science, and technology, the book explores: • The role that genes and training play • How to find hidden champions and fast-track greatness • The truth about the 10,000 hours rule • New research on breaking through fatigue • Revolutions in data and nutrition • And how we can apply the lessons about focus, dedication, and sheer ingenuity in our own lives. Brimming with cutting-edge science and gripping anecdotes, Faster, Higher, Stronger is a fascinating, exhilarating look at how far we can push the boundaries of our bodies and minds. – Publisher’s Summary