The Great Swim
Walker Books 2008
I have the habit of reacting audibly when reading good works of non-fiction. Members of my household and strangers on airplanes have been startled by my hmms and huhs of surprise, my ews and ughs of disgust, and my wows of disbelief.
I put my whole vocabulary of interjections to use while reading Gavin Mortimer‘s book The Great Swim (Walker Books, 2008). Mortimer, an English writer based in Paris, tells the story of four Americans who attempted in 1926 to become the first woman to swim the English Channel: Gertrude Ederle, Lillian Cannon, Amelia Gade, and Clarabelle Barrett. The woman who succeeded was Ederle, a 19-year-old Olympic swimmer who broke the existing record–set of course by a man–by nearly two hours. But while Ederle bested the rough seas of the Channel, she was unprepared for the media storm that engulfed her afterward. Her story, as told by Mortimer, shows the beginnings of the celebrity-mad culture in which we live today, and the damage that culture can do to people who are, for a brief time, turned into idols.
Mortimer’s account of Ederle’s life is poignant, and his narrative of the competition between the four swimmers is brimming with intrigues, scheming newspapermen, and flappers–and even a cameo by General Black Jack Pershing. And the chapters that describe the swimmers’ attempts at the crossing are real page-turners, as the women battled against tides, weather, jellyfish, and big ships. If you’re looking for a book to read while on the beach, this is ideal. My dad, a lifelong swimmer, will be getting a copy for Father’s Day.