Canadian writer Carrie Snyder may not be well-known in the States, but "Girl Runner," Snyder's third book, will undoubtedly put Snyder in the front of the "writers to watch" pack. Snyder's previous books, "Hair Hat" and "The Juliet Stories," were runners-up for Canada's most prestigious literary awards: It would not be a surprise to see Snyder take the gold with this fictional tale of a woman Olympic runner in 20th-century Ontario.
The protagonist, Aganetha Smart, is not based on one particular historical figure; she is an amalgamation inspired by the Matchless Six, as the women who made up the Canadian track and field team were known as in the 1928 Olympic Games. When we first meet Aganetha, she is barely a slip of a woman, 104 years old ("Do not imagine this as an advantage," she cautions), passing her days in a nursing home.
One day a young pair of siblings appear to take her on an outing, and while she doesn't exactly know who they are, or trust them, she is more than happy to escape the nursing home for wherever they want to take her. When she realizes that they are heading to her family's homestead, she is awash in memories of her long-gone extended family.
The novel is written from Aganetha's point of view in a simple, but not simplistic, way. She explores her early memories of growing up on a farm in Ontario with a graveyard of half-siblings that never seems to tire of receiving the dead.
Aganetha is a runner from an early age. She spends time with the boys at the schoolyard and shuns the gossipy girls. At 16, she joins her sister and half-brother in the big city, where she is recruited by the Rosebud Confectionary Co. to join its athletic team and, incidentally, work in its office.
What follows is a steady, yet short, rise to fame when Aganetha takes the gold in the 1928 Olympics, and then an equally quick decline as Aganetha returns as a star and struggles with the repercussions of sudden fame, which she is forced to balance with society's expectations of her womanly duties.
Looped throughout Aganetha's complicated family life is her friendship with Glad, the first fellow "girl runner" she met. Snyder deftly captures the conflict of love, loyalty and drive within their relationship, especially when the two women are ultimately driven apart.
Snyder tunes Aganetha's voice so beautifully at each stage of her life that the comparisons to Elizabeth Strout's unforgettable "Olive Kitteridge" are inevitable. Yet Aganetha is most definitely her own person from start to finish — a process Snyder has captured with exceptional grace.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.