Reviewed by Sharon Engbrecht
Girl Runner. Anansi Press, 2014.
In her first novel, Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder enters into a tradition favoured by Canadian writers: the historically based fictional novel. Canadian literary heavyweights like Atwood, Laurence, Ondaatje, and Findley have all defined the boundaries of this genre. While Girl Runner offers an intriguing story based on real events surrounding the 1928 Olympics, Snyder’s historically based fictive creations sometime undermine the story she weaves. This powerful narrative is cluttered with anxiously written historical lists, which are perhaps an attempt to give the work historical authority. Rather than reaffirming the historicity of the story, Snyder’s attempts to recreate the historical moment fall short of her goal. The depiction of a restless, awkward father figure undermines the socio-economic situation suggested in the story. While the mother is an important supporting character, her position as a midwife who preforms various questionable procedures seems to produce no social consequences. This is odd considering how much of the book is spent suggesting the oppressive nature of the early twentieth century, especially for transgressive women. Among other moments in the novel, these representations weaken the credibility of this poor, rural Canadian family. The seams of that narrative eventually tear when Snyder finally gets around to telling the story that “must have been there waiting to be found” (359)—that is, the story she really wanted to tell.
We meet the novel’s main character Aganetha Smart—fondly known as “Aggie”—first in the prologue as an elderly woman: caustic, witty, skeptical, and standoffish. In contrast, the first chapter opens with a young Aggie and her sister Fannie. This first crucial scene reverberates throughout the text, often demonstrating the awkward intrusion of the sports narrative. Without this unnecessary narrative thread, Snyder’s novel is an exploration of a young girl maturing into a young woman during a complicated early twentieth century world.
The prologue immediately tells the readers, “This is not the love song of Aganetha Smart” (1), which suggests something at-odds in the book; and although the “love song” might not be about a man, running certainly appears to be one of her passions. This leads to her brief appearance as the fictional Canadian gold medal winner in the women’s 800-meter event of the 1928 Olympics. While the novel is based on the real events surrounding women in sports in the early twentieth century, nearly two hundred pages in, the reader might wonder if (although Snyder explicitly states otherwise in the afterward) the novel is primarily about women in sports, the Olympics, or even about what happened in 1928.
Instead, as the story unravels, it appears to be about the personal trials of marginalized women. The reader doesn’t need to be reminded of historical events to understand the reality of this story. The fact that it goes untold, as Snyder writes, “out of […] the record books and the newspapers” (140) is the most important part of her narrative. The secret Aganetha guards is the crucial mystery in the text, especially in terms of how she tells it. This is particularly important in the re-writing of her ‘sister’ Tattie’s narrative in the obituary that preserves her life-story. The work becomes a community of women forgotten by history. As Aganetha suggests, it is “an accidental picture of a life” (175). And we learn, through her own confessions, that she too has been affected by the historical moment and its treatment of women. Her admission, “I embroider the stories, each time told with different details” (173), becomes an important hint to the reader that she is not telling the whole truth. Because of her own complicated relationship to the story she shares, Aganetha is unable to simply reveal the truth. There seems to be a disturbing gap between what really happened and her ability to realize it in words.
The merit in this text, then, is the way in which the story turns into an account of the forgotten and misplaced women in history. The narrative is not only about Aganetha (or the way in which her representation points towards a real life) but also about her sisters, her brother’s ‘wife’ Tatty, the girls in the “granny room” (101) and Miss Alexandrine Gibb—a “mannish woman” (210). All these women are fundamentally affected by the historical moment; they remain through to the present, where Aganetha meets a young Kaley who is a runner like herself, like shadows of the past. And while we never know if the characters find out the truth, in the very least, Aganetha’s audience does. In the end, the phantom-like Fannie who haunts the narrative becomes an echo of the secret Aganetha has had to keep most of her life.
Perhaps this is the reason Snyder did not feel confident enough to wrap a fictional narrative around a real woman. It seems, such a story, with such tremendous force, cannot be told candidly. A story of forgotten women must be approached cautiously; it must be paced, built up to with momentum, much like Snyder’s account of running. While the sports narrative corrupts this story, the running trope strongly reflects Snyder’s own task and nicely encapsulates the struggle experienced by many of the female characters. Perhaps, only through the memories of a strong, independent woman can the story be revealed. Snyder effectively shows Aganetha is at times emotionally uncertain but use running as a fitting anchoring point in what appears to be an otherwise chaotic, male-centric world. Consequently, the work gives the impression that Snyder needed the strength of Aganetha to get through this story—one that faces the reality of women’s history, reputation, and the things women had to do in the sinister face of expectation. And, it would appear, Snyder’s emphasis that “[t]he path is cluttered with obstacles” (319) still rings true.
Sharon Engbrecht is a mother, writer, and artist. She is currently completing her Master’s degree at McGill University and hopes to continue on to PhD studies in western Canada. She studies global Anglophone literature since the 1970s and contemporary Canadian literature. Her most recent work deals with cultural and social debt in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy. Among other things, she enjoys writing letters to living authors and researching urban farming.
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