Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal is a great read for anyone interested in running and looking for a bit of motivation. It has previously been recommended on this blog and in many other places. If you find yourself in the hold queue for a library copy of The Illegal, I encourage you to try Running the Rift by Naomi Beneron while you wait. Beneron’s main character is also a runner whose athletic dreams are threatened by a culture mired in ethnic conflict. Hill employs the fictional countries of Freedom State and Zantoroland as a setting for his story while Beneron’s novel is set in the very real and very harsh reality of Zwanda in the 1990s.
While I enjoyed The Illegal immensely, I found Beneron’s novel to be more nuanced. Hill is very clear cut when it comes to which characters are the heroes and which are the villains while Beneron’s approach is more subtle. Her hero, Jean Patrick, must make difficult decisions about how much complicity he can personally tolerate in order to achieve his athletic goals, to save his family from persecution, and ultimately, to save his own life. This novel won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Fiction, a prize that is awarded biennially by Barbara Kingsolver for an unpublished novel that addresses issues of social justice.
For runners who would prefer to read about a female protagonist, Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder fits the bill. The story begins with a character named Aganetha Smart, who is an elderly lady in a senior citizens home. She is abducted by a young woman seeking to make a documentary. We learn that Aganetha was a competitor in the Olympic Games in 1928, the first year women were allowed to participate in track and field events. The story is as much about family secrets as it is about running; a fact that I found somewhat regrettable. The story of the women athletes at the 1928 Olympics and the immediate aftermath is fascinating and when Snyder is writing about training and competition, she is compelling. Unfortunately, the family secrets are fairly predictable and don’t measure up to the drama of the Olympics and the performances made there by Canada's Matchless Six.
Finally, no post about fictional runners would be complete without mentioning Quenton Cassidy, the hero of John L. Parker’s trilogy Once a Runner, its sequel Again to Carthage and the recently published prequel, Racing the Rain. Arguably the most popular series ever written about running, Once a Runner was self-published in 1978 and has gradually come to be considered a classic. It explores the obstacles faced by Quenton Cassidy as he dedicates himself to becoming an elite runner. In the sequel, Again to Carthage, Cassidy experiences personal loss and sets his sights on the marathon. Racing the Rain explores childhood and what goes into the making a great athlete.
Other titles of interest:
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – Allan Sillitoe
Run – Anne Patchett