I’ve been fascinated by the Olympics since 1972 when the world met Olga Korbut and saw the Israeli (and American-Israeli) wrestlers killed. I was horrified at the Soviet Sports System that made kids leave home to train! (And I’m freaked out that America until COVID-19 seemed to want to replicate that–albeit with a sleep at home twist]. This book was my most anticipated read of the summer as well.
“…a whole world filled with girls who had no idea how fast they could run if given the chance….’ Someday they won’t be able to stop us girls.'” (Louise Stokes, p. 476)
With press nicknames such as “The Fulton Flash” and the “Malden Meteor” the American women who ran track for the U.S. at Hitler’s Olympics were a varied bunch of young women. Hooper creates characters out of the real athletes (though one is fictional) that are mostly believable. Their struggles, especially the one that nearly turned me off the book, are all based on their real-life stories, so I’m glad I didn’t let one incident put me off!
“Our founding member, the visionary Baron Pierre de Coubertin, has always believed that the primary measure of a woman is the number and quality of offspring she produces, not the number of athletic records she achieves….A woman is best suited to encourage her sons to excel rather than focus on her own ambitions.” (p. 82)
Starting with the 1928 Olympics and the triumph of sprinter Betty Robinson, who was still in high school, and running through the final race of the Berlin Olympics, the politics of race, gender, “privilege,” and patriotism are woven into the struggle of the women to make the team, and, more importantly, make the races in the 1932 and 1936 Olympic games. At a time when it was vulgar for “ladies” to sweat or be seen doing any strenuous exercise, many were opposed to women doing something like running for fear it would “damage” their health. All of these women endured slights to their femininity, but none more than Helen Stephens, “The Fulton Flash,” who was accused of being male. She was cleared, of course, but not without the humiliation of it all. She was already plagued with self-doubt regarding her femininity:
“Getting married, having babies, tending to her future house? She couldn’t picture herself doing any of these things.” (p. 137)
“As soon as she had stepped inside the salon, she felt as though she was entering a secret world, one that had been hidden from her all of her life. So, this was how women managed to look beautiful. Professional help!” (p. 301)
I loved that she did not know how to put on a girdle and garter belt! But, I was dismayed that in the 1930s the author forgot that ladies always wore or carried gloves! Helen is the one I had the greatest sympathy for and not because the notes tell us she later became a librarian. I had the same doubts at the same age, but I did not have the same talents nor was did I ever endure a challenge to my gender or have the same proclivities. I understood all that awkwardness though and my heart broke for her.
“Even after all that had happened, the anthem still made her vision swim with tears. Though this country had betrayed her in so many ways, she couldn’t bring herself to reject it. Its promise still had the power to stir something powerful in her.” (p. 476)
But the greatest humiliation was endured by the Black athletes, Louise Stokes, aka “The Malden Meteor,” and Tidye Pickett, who were subjected to being housed in hotel maids’ rooms, left out of team pictures, and even worse slights [No Spoilers]. That they persevered both in their sport and in wanting to represent their own country at a time in which it barely let them be citizens, is inspiring.
Overall, I enjoyed this book so much. It is a good read. I did think that certain characters had attitudes that were not realistic for their day. [SPOILER] but a few things that happened in the Berlin part of the story were a bit too modern–yes the Weimar years had seen great liberalization of morals and constraints, but I did not think any German working in an official capacity would take the risks Ruth did with Helen. Nor did I think any teammate would be so complacent and accepting. They just had a star athlete disciplined for merely being drunk on the ocean voyage. What would have happened to ALL the women athletes if this event had been seen? Yes, Helen has a fit of conscience, but to me, this was not realistic.
A few other moments like this were cited as true in the historical notes though This is one novel to read those notes–they were well done as was the interview with the author in which she explains what she fictionalized.
Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team by Elise Hooper
Other Books on the Berlin Olympics
Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes
This book is cited by the author of Fast Girls.
Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
See also the PBS Documentary, Boys of ’36 based on the book.
My review of Boys in the Boat from my old blog, May 27, 2014
Let’s be clear, this book is NOT about the sport of rowing. Nope. It’s about a boy overcoming the most heartless neglect and abandonment. But wait! It’s not one of those books where we read about a kid being sexually molested, mercifully that does not happen. Joe’s story of overcoming the extreme neglect, dysfunction, and abuse of his childhood should be required reading for social workers today. The power of will at work. Amazing story. Today his folks would deservedly be in prison, but WOW what a strong young man he became and I’m not talking about the muscles he developed rowing One of the most compelling nonfiction books I’ve ever read. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown