Former Olympic athlete Aganetha Smart is 104 years old at the beginning of Girl Runner, spending her final days in a nursing home where she is wheelchair-bound, unable to speak clearly, “a bit deaf — though not so deaf as they think — and not quite blind.” She has outlived everyone she’s cared about and wonders if anyone will remember her: “My achievement is to have lived long enough to see my life vanish. Who will write my obituary?”
In 1928, Aganetha was at the top of her game, a gold medalist in the 800 meter race at the Amsterdam Olympics. Her extraordinary running ability took her far away from her family’s farm in rural Canada, where she had already suffered more grief and loss than many people experience in a lifetime. From the time she was a small child, Aggie was a runner — fast and indefatigable. She was the one the family sent running for the doctor when there was an emergency on the farm.
Although Aggie Smart is a fictional character, author Carrie Snyder was inspired to create her by Canada’s real 1928 female track and field team, known as the “Matchless Six”. The 1928 Olympics were the first at which women competed in track and field events, and it would be the last — until 1960 — at which women were allowed to participate in races farther than 200 meters. An Olympic committee blocked women from distance running, claiming that several female runners at the 1928 race dropped out, and that several others collapsed at the finish. (Film footage of the race refutes these claims; click here for an interesting article about the controversy in Runner’s World.)
Because she was a distance runner and not a successful sprinter, Aggie never competed again in the Olympics. Life brought her disappointment and betrayal — but through it all she kept running. Eventually, she became a newspaper obituary writer, after being demoted from the crime beat when the male veterans of World War II return home. Aggie’s imagined obituaries of her family members are interspersed throughout the novel, poignantly emphasizing that their ordinary lives will soon be forgotten.
Snyder builds suspense by shifting gracefully between the present, as Aggie returns to her family farm with two mysterious young people who claim they are documentary filmmakers, and the past. As Aggie’s mind wanders from the surprising events unfolding around her to memories of the past, it gradually becomes clear that Aggie’s long, complicated life holds heartbreaking secrets.
As an obituary writer, Aggie’s job was to “collect the vicissitudes of a life and to freeze them into sense . . .sum a person up, beginning, middle, end.” From the perspective of old age, she wonders, though, if it’s sometimes best to shape a person’s life story without including certain painful truths: “One begins to think about things like honor, like respect, like the shimmering necessity of not quite telling the truth.”
Aggie’s time as a “girl runner” was a tiny fraction of her lifespan of more than 100 years, but running is how she defines herself throughout her life:
All my life I’ve been going somewhere, aimed toward a fixed point on the horizon that seems never to draw nearer. In the beginning, I chased it with abandon, with confidence, and somewhat later with frustration, and then with grief, and later yet with the clarity of an escape artist. It is far too late to stop, even if I run in my mind only, out of habit.
Girl Runner is a lyrical and achingly sad novel. An independent woman ahead of her time, Aganetha Smart is a fully realized, sympathetic character who will spur readers to think about aging, regret, and the difficult choices life often sends our way.
I’ll tell only what I’ve spent my life promising: that I regret nothing. And it will be a lie, of a kind. But it is also the truth.