Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review: Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder

I took up running in 2007 despite the fact that I was never a runner growing up. I spent 15 years as a competitive swimmer so my couple of years of high school track were really more a function of the fact that the team needed distance runners and I had the endurance than from any speed or aptitude on my part. I sure didn't have any sprint ability, that's for sure. Even now, in my middle age, when most people probably look at going shorter distances, I am trying to ramp myself back up to go longer. It's just what I do best, to Energizer Bunny along. Women were not always thought capable of running anything but short races though. Most people have probably seen the footage of Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon, being pulled at and blocked by race officials who wanted to pull her off the course. Before Switzer, there was a long line of women runners who had to fight the same prejudice, that women were not capable of distance running, despite evidence to the contrary. In Carrie Snyder's novel, Girl Runner, main character Aganetha Smart runs the 800m for Canada in the 1928 Olympics, winning gold, the first woman to do so and at a distance that wouldn't be competed by women again until 1960. But her life over all was not as golden as her medal.

Aggie is 104 when the novel opens, living in a nursing home and all alone in the world, having been predeceased by her entire family. Two young strangers come to the home to take her on an outing, claiming that they are making a film about running and that they know her. They tell her that she is the inspiration for the young woman, a talented marathoner, and that they want to include Aganetha in their documentary. In doing this, they drive her back out to the farm on which she grew up. This, and all of the questions they ask her, trigger memories of her childhood, family, and her training. She had a rough life, this pioneer runner of races. Born on a rural Ontario farm, she was the youngest child of her father's second wife. Often cared for by her oldest half-sister, she learned about loss and the tragic lore of the Smart family at Fannie's side. Always a quick girl, she could outrun all the boys in town but she could not outrun the legacy of war, disease, and accident that continued to relentlessly decimate her family. Leaving home at only sixteen and moving to Toronto with one of her sisters, she was chosen to run track as a factory girl for P. T. Pallister's Rosebud Confectionary, a move that will culminate in her winning an Olympic gold medal and will change the shape her life forever.

Most chapters of the novel start in the present with Aggie in her wheelchair being taken out of the nursing home on an undisclosed outing with Kaley and Max. But there is a moment in each piece of the here and now where Aggie is pulled back into her past. And so the story moves ahead, narrated by an Aggie who is still completely compos mentis no matter how frail her body has become, from a brief time in the present to a longer sojourn in the past. She tells of her childhood, of her friendship with a fellow runner, her long forgotten romance, and the decisions that have led her to be all alone at the end of her life. She senses that the young people so determined to talk to her, to take her back into memory, are not being entirely aboveboard in their desire for her. Even in her narration, Aggie maintains an emotional reserve, a protection against the long ago hurts and betrayals. It is up to the reader to penetrate this shell and to see beneath it to the woman inside.

Aganetha's story is an engrossing one. The hurdles she overcame to win gold and the hurdles she stumbled over in life are interesting and well presented. The history of sports, feminism, and the world all swirl through her personal story, seamlessly integrated. Snyder clearly knows what drives runners, more than just the glory of winning and she has created a fascinating and complex character in Aggie, both clearly repressed and still somehow a modern thinker. The revelation of what Kaley and Max actually want and why is not entirely unexpected by the time the reader gets to it but that no longer really matters. Snyder's weaving of brief obituaries through the narrative helps to increase the continual sense of loss that pervades all of Aggie's life. This is a readable and compelling look at the avenues open to women in the early twentieth century, not just in sports but in terms of their bodies, their careers, and their rights. Runners will especially enjoy it but it has a broader appeal than just to those of us who wobble and trot (or speed and flash) our way around neighborhoods, tracks, and wooded paths.

For more information about Carrie Snyder and the book, take a look at her website, find her on Facebook, follow her at Twitter, or check out the book's Goodreads page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. That sounds like an interesting book although any chance of me running these days is over due to knee issues. Still, I get it as I can walk forever. That and swimming are my exercise go-tos.

  2. Wow that sounds good! I think I missed out by not grabbing onto this one!

  3. Wow, I'd never heard that story about Switzer! Thanks for sharing some interesting history in your review. It definitely makes me more interested in reading this story :)

  4. I'm fascinated by the opportunities (or lack thereof) for women at different times in history, particularly in our recent past. Aggie's story sounds completely fascinating to me!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!


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