Thursday, December 05, 2013

Victoria Patterson's The Peerless Four, an inspiring look at sports and women's history

“I pulled a novel from my purse. Always, I had a book to read... I read to find out what it was like to be a man. To be Russian, Spanish, and French, to be a different race, to be royalty, dirt-poor, a wealthy New Yorker, a homesteader or a gold miner in the pioneer West… I read to find out what it was like in another’s skin.”

This may seem an odd way to begin a review of a sports novel. However, the wise words of Marybelle Eloise Lee “Mel” Ross, the tough yet perceptive woman who chaperones the Canadian women’s track team on their trip to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, explain why I wanted to read Victoria Patterson’s The Peerless Four. Competitive sports have only ever interested me as a spectator, so I wanted this novel to take me somewhere I’d never been: into the mindset of a group of young women whose determination and physical prowess took their world by storm.

It should be said up front that this work is more thoughtful than action-oriented. It celebrates the women’s accomplishments and provides glimpses of them in practice and competition, but it also succeeds in illustrating the social expectations for women in the '20s. The era didn’t treat its female athletes kindly.  They were seen by many as unnatural creatures who might damage their uteri through vigorous exercise, destroying their chances of motherhood. Five track events at the 1928 Olympics were opened to women on a trial basis, so the future of the sport rested on their young shoulders. That they developed the mental stamina that let them thrive in these controversial circumstances is, quite simply, amazing.

Mel, who narrates most of the story, is a great character, a former runner and sports reporter who reads novels and keeps a personal journal – and who also keeps a flask of whisky hitched to her garter for the times when she needs it. She relates well to her charges and helps keep them focused as they train for victory and make their way by ship from Toronto to Amsterdam. Mel has her own gender-based expectations to surmount, since her husband, a bigwig in Canadian amateur athletics, would have preferred her to stay home.

The young women, dubbed the “Peerless Four” by the media, travel in a group that also includes Jack Grapes, their cigarette-smoking, Cadillac-driving sponsor, an ex-hockey player himself, and their team coach. Each of the four speaks in a short biographical segment in the beginning, providing background details on her life.

There’s Muriel Ziegler, nicknamed “Farmer,” the popular team captain who gets dinged by the press for her “masculine” attributes but is the most independent and grounded of the four. She has a terrific outlook on life, and I just loved her. Ginger Hadley is the team’s star high jumper, the enigmatic “Dream Girl” whose gorgeous looks attract swarms of admirers but who hates their misplaced attention and withdraws into herself as a consequence. High school student Bonnie Brody is a runner whose love for her married coach nearly crushes her, and Flo Smith is a single-minded athlete and good team player who hates academics but adores sports.

How everyone copes with the immense competitive and social pressures they all face is the novel’s main theme. For these groundbreaking women, as Muriel puts it, “We had to work things out for ourselves. We were the first ones to try, so there was no one to copy.” As their inspiring tale unfolds, Patterson’s spare, concentrated writing contains many subtle yet unmissable touches of irony. In her account, Mel shares relevant newspaper clippings she'd collected – such as an 1886 article about a race for women in which the prize was a silver dinner service! She also retells an instructive story about a distant relative which, at 16 pages, is unnecessarily lengthy, but nothing else in this short work feels out of place.

I found The Peerless Four well worth reading for its convincing characterizations and its eye-opening look at what early women athletes had to overcome, and the paths they blazed for their present-day successors. That said, it's never stated that the characters are fictitious.  The 1928 Canadian women’s track team was actually called “The Matchless Six,” and Ginger Hadley is obviously based on Ethel Catherwood, the pretty “Saskatoon Lily” whose gold medal-winning high jump is shown on the cover (the photo description on the jacket gives her name).

This technique may have been ethically liberating for its author, and it doesn’t diminish the power of the writing, but the real Olympians whose lives are borrowed for the story deserve to be acknowledged in it. An author’s note would have gone far in preventing confusion between fact and fiction.

The Peerless Four was published by Counterpoint in October ($23.00, hb, 212pp).  Thanks to the author's publicist for sending me a copy at my request.


  1. Oooh -- I'd never have picked it up from the cover -- am not a fan of sports stories -- but this premise intrigues me! Too bad about the lack of author's note -- I depend on them in my hist fic!

    1. I'm not sure if I've read any other historical novels about sports figures, and am not a fan of sports stories either, but this one intrigued me enough to take it on - and I'm glad I did.

      The lack of author's note bothered me because readers will assume, as I did initially, that they'll find Muriel, Flo, Bonnie, and Ginger listed as the Canadian women's track team in nonfiction accounts of Olympic history. I've seen other reviews that were confused about this point.

  2. They were seen by many as unnatural creatures who might damage their uteri through vigorous exercise, destroying their chances of motherhood.

    I know! Snort!

    What in the world did they think the uterus dids for frackin' nine months, more or less, and then what did they think it does during labor? There's a reason it's called labor, people -- the hardest work in the world! That hasn't changed between then and now. The ignorance about women's bodies and how human reproduction works, even now displayed by even not very old white male politicians is baffling.

    Shakes head. :)

    Love, c.

    1. I had to laugh at your comment -- so true -- and it's also seriously depressing, the misconceptions that were (and still are) out there!

    2. Labor, labor, labor, thy name is woman. Which is far more to the point than Woman thy name is Sin!


      Love, C.

  3. I once heard a young father ask the author Rita Mae Brown what was the best thing he could do to help his little girl, and Rita Mae said: get her into sports. Encourage her to be more interested in what her body can do than in how it looks.

    1. The goal is a worthy one, and getting one's body into shape, of course, can add confidence and also improve one's physical appearance...

      That said, as a young girl, I hated sports - the whole competitive aspect during a time of high peer pressure - and being forced to do something I disliked so much did not help me one bit! I understand the sentiment, but whether it works really depends on the girl's personality.

      More than you wanted to know, I'm sure :)

  4. I'm a sports fan and a fan of good historical novels, so I'll definitely check this out.

    1. Good deal - I'd be curious to hear what you think if you read it.