Friday, July 23, 2021

Fast Girls by Elise Hooper — A Novel of the 1936 Women's Olympic Team

Title: Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team
Author: Elise Hooper
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, 2020
Genre: Historical fiction
Description: In this novel about pioneering women athletes of the early part of the 20th century, the author focuses on three real-life American heroines: Betty Robinson of Chicago who was part of the first-ever women’s track and field team in 1928 and won gold; then was in a plane crash that almost killed her and committed to years of rehab in order to qualify again in 1932; Louise Stokes, a gifted African-American runner from Malden, Massachusetts, who overcame financial challenges and discrimination to make the 1932 team; and Helen Stephens, from a Midwest farming community, who uses her athleticism as a way to escape poverty. The story begins in 1928 as Betty is about to sail from New York and compete in the Olympic Games in Amsterdam, then moves to 1931 to follow the developing talent and struggle for recognition of younger athletes, and continues through 1936 with the focus on these three women’s journeys to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
My Impressions: Most people think of Jesse Owens if they are interested in the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany, but I was ready to be charmed by the little-known story of the women runners of the Olympic team and the lives of the three main characters and their competitors. I love historical fiction and the Olympics; however, I found the end result somewhat disappointing, due to the wooden quality of the writing. Still, I enjoyed the description of the three women and their families, their struggles to pay for their training and their travel to competitions and the Olympics. The discrimination experienced by the African-American runners was appalling, particularly the decisions not to race the strongest women due to race. The author created newspaper articles, letters, and telegrams to support her narrative, which seemed convincing, but I wish she had used primary sources, some of which must exist.

Until 1928, the Olympics only allowed women to participate in archery, golf, tennis and, in 1912, swimming.  Both Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin and Pope Pius XI were against allowing women to compete in track and field, so it is easy to understand the frustration of these skilled athletes at the obstacles to their inclusion. The author does a good job of showing how most athletes were not politically aware and knew little about Hitler and what was taking place in Nazi Germany. Even when informed, they did not think it was their business, and most were appalled by the idea of a boycott, after all they had gone through to get there. Hooper depicts Helen Stephens as being the most knowledgeable politically, and I don’t know if this is historically accurate. In one of my favorite parts of the book, two of the athletes go to a bar in New York to meet up with several of the men’s team, including Jesse Owens, still an undergraduate:
Tidye cleared her throat and chimed in. “We don’t support the idea of boycotting. By racing over there, we won’t just be showing Hitler his ideas are wrong, we’ll be showing our own country too.”

“Exactly,” said Dave. “You know, back at school, Jesse and I can’t even live on campus. Ohio State is only interested in having us around in ways that serve its interests.”
Overall, the book did not grab me despite my interest in the topic and I probably would not have finished if not for the Olympics. Writing about real characters is tricky and Hooper’s attempts to imagine these women’s thoughts and feelings were not always convincing, even if her goal was to give them some of the acclaim they deserve. In the case of Helen Stephens, Hooper’s decision to depict her as romantically interested in many of the women she met, even if true, seemed like an unnecessary negative stereotype that detracted from her accomplishments.
Reviewing it on the day of the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics seems appropriate as we think of noteworthy athletes of the past and present. I was surprised at the author’s depiction of uber-athlete Babe Didrikson as being obnoxious and arrogant – I do not remember that from Babe Didrikson: Girl Athlete, the Childhood of Famous Americans biography written by none other than Lena de Grummond, who would go on to found the famous de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. I know I read this bio because I read every single book in that series owned by my school and public library.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, eventually my mother protested at the way this series whitewashed or did not accurately portray history and moved me on to more thorough biographies.

This is my fifteenth book in the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader and part of my 20 Books of Summer.
Source: Advance Reading Copy received at ALA Midwinter in 2020. The book was published in July 2020 because, of course, the publisher did not anticipate that the Olympics would be postponed until 2021. 


Test said...

Have you read the Wallaces' Babe Conquers the World: The Legendary Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias? I can't cite specifics, but I am not surprised that Babe was depicted as arrogant. CoFA books portrayed all of the historical figures as exemplary people. I'm not at all surprised that you read the series. I did, too! I may have to take a look at this. Oh, Sue Macy's Breaking Through: How Female Athletes Shattered Stereotypes in the Roaring Twenties was also enthralling!

Lark said...

I started this one, but just couldn't get into it, which made me sad because the premise of it really intrigued me. I think I would have preferred if Hooper had just written a nonfiction book about these women.

CLM said...

Lark, I suspect there wasn't enough information available but I think you are right that a nonfiction book would not have included the aspects of their stories that I found too speculative.

Test, I was being a bit sarcastic about the Childhood Biographies but I certainly enjoyed them and remember all sorts of random things from them like Mary Todd's obsession with a hoop skirt and Eli Whitney kissing a girl at a harvest event. I will look for the books you mentioned; thanks.

TracyK said...

The premise of this excited me due to the 1936 Olympics being in Germany, so I am sad to hear that the execution was not as good as the subject. I also like the fact that three real-life women are used. Oh well.

You are so far ahead of me in reading historical fiction books. Not that it is a competition. I have done well enough (for me) on reading historical fiction but not so well at reviewing.

Lex @ Lexlingua said...

I typically avoid books about sports/ sportspersons. But seriously what better time to read this book than the current Olympics in Japan? :)

Davida Chazan (The Chocolate Lady) said...

I enjoyed this one, and obviously, its on my mind right now!