This is a wonderful book. Jack Batten has written a riveting sports story about a man whose astounding running abilities were at their peak in an era when racing was a wildly popular sport, regularly drawing crowds of 10,000 or more. But Batten has done much more. He offers us an intriguing slice of social and economic life in the early decades of the 20th century, raising some provocative questions in the process.
Tom Longboat, an Onondaga from the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario, was born into desperate poverty, but his great skill took him far from these roots for many years. From his first race in 1905 until he went to war in 1916, Longboat dominated the highest echelons of the international running world. Competing in the 1908 Olympics, the Boston Marathon and many other races, both short- and long-distance ones, he became, at the height of his fame, the most beloved Canadian at home and abroad.
As a newcomer to sports biography, I was impressed with how Batten built dramatic tension when describing the critical races of Longboat's career. In detailing the gruelling nature of the competitions and the strategic psychology underpinning long races, Batten gives the reader an "I was there" perspective which lets us appreciate the tenacity and playfulness that characterized Tom Longboat's running career. Avid sports fans will also enjoy the links Batten makes between Longboat's era and our own sports world: comparisons between Longboat and Gretzsky, the shifting popularity of individual to team sports, and an eerily familiar scandal involving strychnine, the performance-enhancing drug of that age.
Into this sports story, Batten deftly inserts information about the status of First Nations Peoples in white society, and the "sportsmen" who ruled the sports world before WWI. His examination of the more complex and disturbing dimensions of Tom Longboat's story provides a much richer context for understanding Longboat's life.
How was it, for example, that Tom's father came to work land that was far too poor to call a farm? At this point, Batten delivers a brief history of the Six Nations people, beginning with their expansively successful political Confederacy and thriving agricultural communities, and ending with their confinement on poor land near the Grand River. Regarding the tensions between native culture and white society's assimilationist agenda, Batten remarks that Joseph Brant, a Six Nations leader who was an educated Christian, "was just the sort of Native the British wished all Natives to be like." Many decades later, the harsh regimen of the residential schools was designed, Batten argues, to "creat[e] thousands of little Joseph and Josephine Brants." Through such concise commentary, the early hardships endured by Tom Longboat at home and at a residential school are given a much broader historical perspective.
As an adult, Tom took his place in a world where Native peoples were considered second class citizens, working for less than white men's wages, and subjected to racial slurs that went unchallenged. Batten charts the recurring issue of Longboat's "training", a point of contention around which the conflicting values of Longboat and his white managers (and by extension, their different societies) became crystallized. While his managers demanded complete devotion to running, at the expense of all else, Longboat refused to consider his running as more important than other aspects of his life¨his wife, his friends, having a good time. He continued to "train" by playing handball and taking long hikes, things he liked to do. Batten suggests that Longboat's balanced approach was rooted in Native values, which give many activities equal weight, without overemphasizing any single ability. In general, Longboat's informal, common sense approach did not fit with the arbitrary rules and regulations governing white society life¨be it work, war, or track and field. Even his intelligently economical running style¨feet and hands kept low¨was disapproved of because it was 'unorthodox'.
Opposite this easy-going man, who never lost his modesty or turned his back on his own community, Batten sets up the self-proclaimed "sportsmen" of the day. These were businessmen and lawyers who "loved their own image of themselves... as champions of fair play and sportsmanship." Considering themselves more knowledgeable than the athletes they bet upon or bought a piece of, they profited enormously from Longboat's abilities. In fact, it seems to have been his manager's growing wealth rather than Longboat's own financial success, that triggered the official finding that Longboat had turned professional. A sense of shame was one of the emotions this story triggered in me, a story whose shameful remnants continued right into the 1980s.
On a lighter note, this book treats us to some fascinating tidbits: Stories about Toronto during the years it earned the nicknames Hogtown and Toronto the Good; the origins of the Olympics and the Marathon race at the turn of the century; details about the tracks and footwear of the day, appalling by today's standards. And always, Batten turns a respectful and appreciative gaze on Native culture, from the spiritual elements of Lacrosse to the healing powers of the medicine men who helped Tom Longboat and his family several times when conventional doctors could not.
Batten's style is ideal for its targeted audience of teens 12 and up, although the book certainly does not read as "too young" for adults. Conversational, chatty, with a dry edge of sarcasm spiking his remarks, Batten avoids polemics about the racist behaviour that marked and marred Longboat's life. Instead, he carefully structures his well-researched facts, letting them speak¨powerfully¨for themselves. A number of times, he also invites the reader to consider a set of facts, and the different conclusions that might reasonably be drawn from them. This book is an excellent example of how history is not transparently available, but must be constructed with rigorous honesty. Finally, however, Batten's critical investigation of the people and social forces involved in shaping this great Canadian's life, compels his readers to move beyond history. It leaves us re-thinking our responses to the culture clashes occurring today between competing value systems, so that we might ensure this disturbing history will not be re-written in the present tense.
Deborah Wandell is a reader, cyclist and avid gardener who lives and works in Toronto