This was the world of the female athletes in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, the first games in which women were allowed to compete (and on a trial basis, at that). Nicknamed "the Peerless Four," the Canadian track team included some of the strongest and most diversely talented women on the scene. Narrated by the team's chaperone—a former runner herself—the women embark on their journey with the same golden goals as every other Olympian, male or female. But as the Olympic tension begins to rise with unexpected injuries, heartbreaking disqualifications, and the pressure of supreme athletic performance, each woman discovers new fears and new priorities, all while the weight of women's future in the Olympics rests on their performance poise.
The Peerless Four is more than a sports novel, more than a record of how far women's rights have come in the past 75 years. It's a meditation on sacrifice, loyalty, commitment, perseverance, and the courage to live a true underdog tale.
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I was in Jack Grapes's Cadillac, with Jack driving. A sleek black Cadillac that reminded me of a hearse, the motor thrumming beneath us. Ginger Hadley and her sister Danielle, or Danny, as everyone called her, in the backseat. Hazy beams of sunlight flickered through the trees. Behind us on the road, another car followed with a photographer and Sam Sacks, the high-jump coach whom Jack had hired to train Ginger for the 1928 Olympics, even though Ginger swore that she didn't need him. Seventeen years old and she knew everything. She did what came natural, she said, scissoring those legs so that she flew-stepped across the bar. Jack was sponsoring Ginger, and Danny was part of the package.
I watched Jack using his thumbs to steer on the straight shot of the road, his big thigh next to me flexing now and then. He was unusually quiet. The photographer would snap the Dream Girl (they'd already started calling Ginger that), in her shack of a house in Beechy, Saskatchewan, drumming up more support and money, and Jack would soothe the sisters' father. Jack had it all figured out, and he was silent now, mulling it over.
His hand left the steering wheel and went inside his jacket, fingering a flask nestled in the lining of his inside pocket. His eyes glimmered in my direction and he sucked in his cheeks, blew some air through his mouth.
When I moved to Canada from Ohio, my suitcase handle was engraved with my initials M.E.L. (Marybelle Eloise Lee). The train steward looked at my suitcase and called me Mel, and I took the name because it fit me more than the other. I glimmered my eyes back, letting Jack know that I had my own flask, fitted tightly in the garter at my thigh, its metal cool against my skin.
"You're something else, Mel," he said, staring straight ahead.
Jack was the founder of the Parksdale Ladies Athletic Club. Jack is Irish and Scottish with some French and Italian thrown in. A former professional hockey player and a self-made mining millionaire, with brokerage firms where he didn't work much and where he employed amateur women athletes whether they had skills or not. Typists, stenographers, and mailers, women in their late teens and early twenties worked for Jack and played for his basketball team, advertising his business.
Jack had a knack for getting people to hand over their money. Forty-two with a patch of scalp near the back of his silvery-haired head that had decided, after all, not to go bald, he wore a brown fedora, insecure about that one naked spot. The bridge of his nose flattened and switched directions midway, lending an appealing confusion to his features, and a scar pitted his freshly shaved jawline. His big dark sleepy eyes had an inward look that opened itself to me in dazzling flashes.
I threw a glance and a smile back at the sisters, sitting close, thighs touching and bodies vibrating with the engine. Danny was holding Ginger's hand in her lap. I could never remember which sister was older. They were giving themselves over to their thoughts, as if they were one person. Maybe thinking about all that had happened since they were girls, Ginger jumping the caragana hedges between their home and the end of the street, Danny racing beside her. Or thinking about how Ginger was the runt of the family, until Mother Nature bestowed her in her sixteenth year with eight inches of height, so that her father raised the jumping bar he'd assembled in their backyard. That year, Ginger told me, she'd lie in bed and feel herself grow.
They had matching wavy bobbed black hair but Danny was a plainer version of Ginger, broader and wider-hipped, less sharp- featured. All the things that stood out with Ginger — her eyes, hair, body, lips — seemed unrealized, as if the same features had stagnated. Yet there was a lonely mysterious vacancy to Ginger. Her aloofness attracted men and came across as poise, but I couldn't help but feel that there was something sinister behind it.
Danny, on the other hand, was ever-present and practical, and that afternoon, she leaned forward, asking, "Can we stop at Beechy Drugstore for a Coke?"
"Sure thing," Jack said.
"It's coming up," she said, leaning back, satisfied. Sure it was coming up. There wasn't much along Main Street: a post office, a grocery, a café, a bank, and oceans of fields with the South Saskatchewan River a distant shimmering ribbon.
We parked in the dirt parking lot, and the car that was following slowed and parked near us. Jack motioned for Sacks and the photographer to stay in the car. The sky was big and blue and bright, and a couple of fat cows behind a fence raised their heads, watching us with mild interest, mouths chewing in a sideways motion.
When Ginger got out of the Cadillac, she stood for a second, smoothing her skirt on her hips. Birds squawked and twittered and there was a rustling noise in a bush. She presented her mouth discreetly for Danny, and Danny gave a head nod, indicating that there were no lipstick flecks on her teeth.
We entered the drugstore, Jack holding the door open. A bell rang above the door but the people inside were already watching, as if waiting, a few of the mothers at the ice cream counter holding napkins to their kids' mouths.
Jack took his hat in his hand, his hair a little damp against his forehead. We stood there, and then the girl ladling ice cream looked up. She set the scoop back in its water and came around the counter. "Hold on," she said, and she hurried to a back room.
She came back with a small man in a white coat. His glance slid right off me. The gazes of men had been directed at me for years, but at thirty-eight, I knew that this stage of my life was ending.
The druggist's fist disappeared in Jack's pumping handshake and introductions were made. When it was over, the druggist turned to the people at the counter and said, "Folks, it's the Dream Girl!" but they didn't need the pharmacist to tell them who Ginger was. A young girl, probably about ten, was about as happy-looking as I'd ever seen a person.
The pharmacist said to Ginger, "Your photographs don't do you justice."
It wasn't a cold look that Ginger gave him but there wasn't warmth. She turned her gaze from him, and her fingers passed over her throat.
"Hello, girls," came a voice, and soon an older woman at the far end of the drugstore came forward, tall and gaunt with a wolfish face. She reached a limp hand out, and first Danny shook it by the fingers, then Ginger. "How've you been?" she asked, and the sisters nodded, indicating that they'd been good.
Wolf-woman looked around at us and she said, "I had the pleasure of teaching the Hadley girls from first grade to sixth." The sisters were looking down, as if in somber remembrance.
"Good girls," Wolf-woman continued. "Not bookish. Polite. Never spoke out of turn. Ladylike." She gave a burdensome sigh, and then she shook her head.
"What is it?" Jack asked, smiling with curiosity.
Even before she spoke, I knew what was coming. "I'm afraid," she said, conferring a benevolent stare upon the sisters, "that I worry." She went on like this, telling us that she agreed with Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Female participation in the Games, she said, was another example of the disturbing changes occurring in postwar Canada. Women possessed the vote, they smoked, used makeup — and here she looked pointedly at Ginger — went everywhere without chaperones. Where would it end?
Wanting to protect the sisters and not knowing what else to do, I moved forward, so that the sisters would feel my presence.
Wolf-woman assessed me, and then she showed her displeasure with a chortling noise. She tried to shame me by letting her eyes linger over my wedding band, to Jack's wedding-ring-less hand, and then back upon my face. But I was beyond shame, and I sensed the sisters behind me.
Then I heard Ginger say in a quiet voice, "I just want to win."
"You have a good day, now," Jack said.
Wolf-woman thanked him with a forced patience while throwing a shifty look at me. She said good-bye to the sisters and retreated. The pharmacist gave us Cokes with straws, insisting that they were "on the house," though Jack tipped him enough to pay for four more.
Before we left, the happy girl had Ginger sign her handkerchief with a leaky fountain pen, and Ginger pressed her lips to the cloth, leaving a flowery-red kiss print beneath her name.
Back in the Cadillac, Jack revved the engine and there was a gravelly noise beneath our tires as we pulled out from the parking lot, the other car following. I was sad, and for some reason thinking about Kallipateira sneaking into those ancient Games, anxious to watch her son, a boxer, compete. After all, she'd trained him after his father had died. I thought about telling the story to Jack and the sisters but inside the car was a quiet contentment that I didn't want to sabotage. Kallipateira had dressed as a male trainer and stood in the crowd. When her son won, she was so excited, she jumped over a barrier to congratulate him, snagging her robe and exposing her womanhood, ensuring a future rule: trainers had to enter the Games naked to prove that they were indeed men. Fortunately, because Kallipateira's father, three brothers, nephew, and son were Olympic victors, the officials decided not to kill her.
We'd gone about a half-mile in silence when Jack tapped his palm against the horn, muttering, "Move it, move it," and a furry beast scattered across the road. Jack swerved and missed it. He slowed, and up ahead I saw a brick schoolhouse amid the trees, where Wolf-woman had no doubt taught the sisters to be quiet and ladylike. Seeing the schoolhouse made me remember all the way back to when I was nine, and I'd first moved to Toronto with my suitcase with M.E.L. on the handle, to live with my father after my mother had passed from cancer and my grandparents didn't want to keep me. My father was a reporter and a drinker, and I wanted him to love me, even though he had left my mom. He kept bottles in his trunk, and a wad of cash in a thick rubber band, and all of this flashed through me, but I was able to leave it at the schoolhouse in the trees when we passed.
Jack made the turn that meant we were close, and he leaned toward me and said, "Friday, golf."
"Name?" I asked, knowing that this meant he'd made an appointment to play golf with Florence Smith's father, for the same reason we were going to the sisters' house now.
"Walter Smith," he said. "A sweet tooth. Flo says he loves coconut."
I had my notebook out now and I wrote down the name, adding, Macaroons.
"Snappy dresser," Jack said. "Changes clothes during the day. Flo says he reads the Bible to them every night."
"Okay," I said, writing, Dandy Jesus Lover.
I was always writing in my notebooks. I'd gotten a taste for filling one after the other, and then locking them in my closet, because they weren't anything I wanted my husband to read. Wallace swore he wouldn't touch them, let alone read them, if you paid him. He didn't want to know what was inside. Now that I was living with the girls, I kept the books locked in a safety deposit box at the bank. I used to report on women's sports for the Toronto Daily News, but that had little to do with what I put in those notebooks. Spilling myself on those blank pages had become a habit.
Jack drove about a mile along an unpaved road with our dust storm behind us for the car following, and then he pulled the Cadillac over. The house was a two-story with a wide front porch, the wood old and paint-chipped, set back from the road, with a wire fence around a yard. I recognized a maple and an old oak. The grass was overgrown and a half-dozen or so hens clucked in a pen. An ancient black dog lay in a heap at the porch. It was one of those houses with chickens and sleeping dogs and something lonely and average about it.
As we walked closer, I saw that the side was being repainted and in the process of repairs. I wondered if this had to do with the money that Jack had given the sisters.
By the time we opened the gate, Mr. Hadley was on the front porch coming toward us. But then he stopped and waited, a very tall man, thin, wearing a suit like Jack's, with a blue shirt underneath. We got closer and I saw that his face had that same remote look that Ginger's has, making me wonder if it was something genetic and not about a hurt, but then the look passed and he was shaking Jack's hand, hugging his girls, and nodding a welcoming hello at me. He had the same deep brown eyes as his girls, and he'd shaved before we arrived, fresh nicks of crusted blood along his jawline.
Jack introduced Sam Sacks, who limped forward and said that he was delighted to meet Mr. Hadley, absolutely delighted, and then Jack turned his attention to me, introducing me by my full name, not as Mel, and explaining that I was married to Dr. W. R. Ross, not only an esteemed doctor, but also the Canadian representative for the International Amateur Athletic Federation. With de Coubertin's influence diminished, five track and field events had been opened for women. On a trial basis — an experiment, and the IAAF would vote afterward. He explained that I was chaperoning the ladies everywhere, living with them, and that Mr. Hadley could rest easy, knowing that I was with his girls at all times.
As we stood talking, occasionally a flash would go off, and Mr. Hadley would squint, as if someone had pinched him. He'd sent his kids and wife to his aunt's house, he explained, so that we'd have quiet. Jack was disappointed, thinking of the missed photo opportunities, but he had his game face on, and no one could tell but me. Ginger crouched to pet the dog, whose name was Lucky, and the flashbulbs started. Lucky made no response. I was beginning to wonder if the dog was dead, but then I saw his rib cage lift with breath. The photographer wanted a better shot of Lucky and Ginger communing, and Danny tried to help, murmuring Lucky's name, encouraging him to sit, bringing out a piece of ham, but nothing worked. Finally, she lifted the dog from his hips and placed him in an awkward sit. Mangy and sick, his yellow tongue hanging from his mouth. Ginger's affection was replaced with a frank disgust at the smell of his breath, so the photographer gave up.
We made our way to the living room, where we sat and talked some more. By the way that Danny and Mr. Hadley were looking at Ginger, I saw that they loved her with a similar awe. All his kids were athletes, Mr. Hadley told us, and he'd had his day, but nothing like Ginger. I imagined them watching her in the backyard jumping that high jump Mr. Hadley had assembled, practicing for hours. Mr. Hadley gave Ginger money when she surpassed her record, and she kept going. Then one afternoon she jumped five feet three inches, setting a world record. They didn't know it was a world record; it was just her best jump. But Jack found out about her and came and talked up her parents and took her and her sister with him. She'd never jump that high again, not even at the Olympics when she'd win her gold.
The conversation in the living room waned, and I wasn't sure if we'd made headway with Mr. Hadley. Ginger and Danny had been in the kitchen, and then they were upstairs in the bedroom that they'd shared. There was a pause and we heard their feet along the stairway coming down. The sisters practically ran into the room and stood beside their father, who sat stiff-backed, and Ginger kissed his cheek and said, "I love you so much, Poppa," and Danny said, "It's so exciting, Poppa!" kissing his other cheek. Mr. Hadley looked stunned. I smiled at Jack and he was beaming because we both knew that the sisters would go to Amsterdam.
The photographer wanted to snap Ginger in the backyard next to her homemade high jump but she refused. "Why not?" he asked, and Ginger was quiet, but then she whispered something in Danny's ear, and Danny said, "What's the point? It's stupid."
Mr. Hadley said that he had jumping clothes that she could change into, but her face turned red. She agreed to go outside — no photos — and we stood and looked and cast glances at each other while the wind swept the tops of the trees. Mr. Hadley had created a high jump with soft dirt to buffer falls. He'd make Ginger — from age seven on, freckles on her nose, flicking hair from her eyes — come back inside. If she'd had her way, she would have stayed out all night, her breath catching in her chest, and a rushing sound when she flew over the bar, like a wave crashing in her head. A restlessness temporarily released. Hours and hours. Over and over. An ascetic discipline. The reality struck me as vapid and primitive, pursued with a tunnel-like small vision. I wanted it to be noble and profound but there it was, far more strange and pointless.
"She'd rather jump," Mr. Hadley said, "than eat or play or anything."
We went back to the living room, and the photographer fired off more flashes. He moved Ginger and posed her, and she got her lost look that made her pretty, but also made me imagine someone locking her in a closet when she was just a little kid, or touching her where she wasn't supposed to be touched. He stood her beside a bookshelf, pretending to read; sat her at the kitchen table, lifting a teacup; had her pretend to wash the dishes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Peerless Four"
Copyright © 2013 Victoria Patterson.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Toronto Daily Star,
Chapter One: Backyard Jumper,
Chapter Two: Amazon,
Chapter Three: Beauty Contest,
Chapter Four: Farmer,
Chapter Five: Slip Aways,
Chapter Six: Onata Green,
Chapter Seven: Winning and Losing,
Chapter Eight: Good Wife,
Chapter Nine: Bell Lap,
Chapter Ten: Flight Phase,
Before the Peerless Four,