Fast Girls: a Novel of the 1936 Women's Olympic Team
Fans of sports-centered books won’t want to miss the latest offering from author Elise Hooper. Fast Girls: a Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team is a fictionalized account of three American women and their journey to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. As one might imagine, these early Olympians didn’t have an easy time of it, and I loved the way Ms. Hooper brought them and their struggles to life.
Chicago native Betty Robinson is no stranger to Olympic glory. She was one of the first women to compete in the 1928 games where she won a gold medal and returned home amidst much fanfare. Unfortunately, a tragic plane crash threatened her dream of competing in the 1936 games, and it took every ounce of physical and mental fortitude she could muster to bring her to the point where competing was even a possibility. Now though, after months of grueling practice, she’s ready to do whatever she has to in order to bring home another gold medal.
For Louise Stokes, who grew up just outside Boston, running means freedom from her personal demons. She’s a deep thinker, desperate to find her niche in society, but she’s one of the very few African-American female athletes in her part of the country, and claiming her spot at the 1936 games won’t be easy. She endures acts of racism both obvious and covert, and although she sometimes considers giving up, her strength and determination eventually carry her through, even if victory doesn’t look the way she expects it to.
Helen Stephens has been searching her whole life for a place to belong. Her family is poor, and her tomboyish ways make her an outcast among the girls in the small Missouri town she calls home. Only when she’s running does she feel she has something valuable to offer the world. With the help of her extremely dedicated coach, Helen finds herself in the running for a spot on the Women’s Olympic team. But despite her many local successes, nothing is certain when it comes to competing in the Olympic Games, and Helen will be forced to work harder than ever before for the chance of achieving her dreams.
The story is told from the perspectives of all three women with newspaper articles sprinkled between some chapters. I was worried the articles would pull me out of the story, but they actually provided a broader perspective which helped to put certain events in context. The language used in these articles isn’t always complementary toward women, but it definitely fits the attitudes of the time and adds an extra layer of authenticity to the story.
Parts of the novel feel a little slow, but everything the author chooses to include turns out to be an essential part of the story, even if the reason for it isn’t apparent until closer to the end of the book. We get to know all three main characters extremely well, something I always appreciate when reading a historical novel. So even if you’re tempted to give up, keep reading and the pace will pick up before too long.
I loved both Louise and Helen, but Betty’s character was difficult for me to like. She comes off as shallow, and her motivations for competing didn’t always make sense to me. I admired her determination to persevere in the face of what would feel like insurmountable obstacles to some, but her personality grated on my nerves at times.
This is a novel you can fall in love with even if sports aren’t something you’re passionate about. I hardly ever watch sporting events, and I’m the furthest thing from an athlete, but there’s something extremely compelling about Ms. Hooper’s writing, something that draws you in even if you’re not at all sure this book is for you. It’s long, clocking in at just over 500 pages, but I finished it in just over twenty-four hours, and although some parts did feel a bit tedious, I’m glad I stuck with it. There’s a lot to love about these heroines, none of whom were familiar to me before I started reading, and their story is sure to appeal to fans of historical fiction centered around strong women.