The Bone Cage
6 journalers for this copy...
As I write this, The Bone Cage is sitting as one of the top 10 Canadian novels of the decade. November 24th will let us know whether it makes it into the 2011 Canada Reads. I'm not going to wait until then to read it though. That starts tonight!
I am a woman of a certain age, as women of a certain age are apt to say, but despite that I still harbour what some might say is an unrealistic notion that I will yet compete in the Olympics.
My siblings would not find this notion odd or unrealistic in any way, even as they too attain an age of certain-ness. That's because starting from early childhood we've all been quite confident that we could run, walk, swim, jump, throw, cycle, skate, row, ski, fight or play fast enough, far enough, high enough and well enough to get into the Olympics if we wanted to. We know this because we competed in our own Olympics every summer and have the medals to prove it. Of course in addition to the regular Olympic events such as the 100 metre dash and the long jump, we added ring toss because our Dad was good at it (and promised that who ever beat him would get a Dairy Queen chocolate malted milkshake on the next trip to town) and we added stick races in the roadside ditch for our baby brother because everyone should have a chance for at least one medal.
And we "trained" daily, both purposely (as when my brother and I worked up a sweat and sunstroke by each taking an oar in our wooden barge of a rowboat and rowing as hard as we could in an effort to create a wake and waves sufficiently large to make it to shore) and despite ourselves (as when we road our bikes as hard as we could to make it up the townhall hill without dismounting - just because to get off would be so "feeb").
My siblings and I were/are blessed with good genes. We're healthy, mean and lean - as indeed, are all of our children. We are all fiercely competitive. Yet none of us have been to the Olympics or even tried to get there(despite the belief that we could and even still will) and none of us have entered into any serious formal training to that end. Why I wonder? It is not for lack of talent. Nor was it for want of opportunity. Nor was it a case of lack of discipline. So what is the difference between me, my siblings, and every other reasonably talented athlete out there and the Olympian?
I approached Angie Abdou's book with the hope that I'd find the answer to that question.
Meet Digger (Thomas Stapleton), a wrestler in his early thirties and Sadie Jorgenson, a twenty-six year-old swimmer, each about to realize a life-long dream of competing in the Olympics. Both have qualified to represent Calgary (as the Calgary media is quick to say) and Canada in the 2000 Bejing Olympics. Both realize this is likely to be their last chance for the "big show" and both are anxious not to let this opportunity slip away.
My first thought about this situation was, "Twenty-six and thirty? Cripes, when I was that age I was spending time at a skating rink, yes every day, starting at 5:30 a.m. But not for me." No, I was there watching my own young Olympic hopefuls twirl around the ice. I had (looking back on it anyway) a marvelously full life - a husband, two children, an education, a job, three meals a day to shop for and prepare, umpteen loads of laundry, friends and relatives to visit and entertain, songs to sing and open roads to travel. Who would choose a life like Sadie's - living in one's parents' home with each day, after day, after day, unfolding in the same way, "swim, eat, work, eat, sleep, eat, weights, eat, swim, eat, sleep."
Sadie does it because since she was fourteen she believed (or had instilled in her) she has "the burning desire to be a champion". Digger, because wrestling was the right sport for his body. Um, there must be more to Digger's story. Why else?
When I think about the dream that my brothers and sisters and I had to be in the Olympics, a dream that we all still crazily have, I think the difference is that it is just one of many dreams. It is not the be-all and end-all. It does not define us. We did have the "burning desire" to beat each other. We did have the "burning desire" to beat the person in the blocks beside us. We did not have the all- consuming desire to be champion of the world or to allow the pursuit of that to interfere with our other dreams or to define who we were.
Sadie and Digger intrigued me. I worried about them. I can't say I loved them; I suspect, because no love was being reflected back at me. I don't think they were really capable of loving anyone, not themselves, each other or anyone. They didn't have time for that; it was conditioned out of them. They did sometimes feel guilty about being selfish, but as Digger put it, the Olympic motto is "swifter, higher, stronger"; it does not include "kinder".
I worried about the them because I wanted them to keep the "kinder". Yet I saw them losing that human quality, Digger in particular when he erupts in anger far too often, even going so far as to slug his best friend (yet Fly accepts that) and when he avoids contact with Sadie (yet Sadie accepts that). They were, as would be Olympic athletes, becoming less than human - like machines, like animals. And, the author provides us with lots of fuel to make that comparison.
I found it interesting that they dated and hung around only with each other, much like police officers do, because nobody but other Olympian wanna-bes could understand what they go through. But their relationships were tenuous at best. They were, after all, in competition with each other. Katie was being groomed for Sadie's spot in the same way that Sadie was for Lucinda's.
I have no doubt that Sadie was fond of her Grandmother. That relationship was a good one: grandchild/grandparent relationships frequently are. And yet even so, Sadie felt the need to legitimize herself to even her grandma (who I doubt required anything of the sort) by winning a medal.
Even by the end of the story I remained worried for Sadie and Digger and wondered if there really was any hope for a "normal" loving relationship between them after the big show. Or was it true, as Sadie quotes Mark Tewksbury as saying, "The Olympics leaves its athletes broken souls."
For all my worrying though the book was pure pleasure to read, a fully immersing experience. I could see, hear, feel,and smell this book. It is, as I've read the author say somewhere, a "sweaty" book. I was reminded, more than once, of the first time in high school I had walked into the boy's gym and experienced the pungent eye-stinging stench of male sweat. I remember thinking then, "Good grief! Do they never take their gym clothes home to be washed!" and I often wrinkled my nose while reading the wrestling scenes in this book. Abdou's description of a wrestling match was superb. I could see and hear the grunts and squeaks and the grappling and bodies slapping on the mats as if I were present in the arena. It was fast paced and exciting.
I could feel how Sadie's body craved the water, much in the same way a smoker craves the next cigarette. I could hear the rush of water past her ears and, almost as if I was doing it myself, I could feel the feet over head, feet over head, feet over head somersaults of her entry into the pool.
For all that immersion in the life of an athlete though I have no desire to hit the gym or the pool. I do, however, have the burning desire to challenge my Dad to a game of ring toss. I have the burning desire for a chocolate malted milkshake.
Edited to add:
It's been a week or so since I did the above review and despite moving on to other books, this one remains with me. I've thought a lot about the Olympics and our country's (as if we own them) celebrated (or sometimes not so celebrated) athletes and I've wondered how they do get on with their lives after their prime years. I wondered in particular what happened to those athletes who missed out on the 1980 boycotted Olympics. So I googled some of them. The results were interesting. For example: Monica Goermann a gymnast from Manitoba chose not to go on after that. She said she'd given her heart and soul to the sport. Maybe Mark Tewksbury's comments were oh so true.
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This was an excellent book. Thanks, Pooker, for passing it along to me. I was surprised to find myself so engaged with a book about athletes and their struggles towards greatness (it's not something I would usually choose to read about), but this book is as much about the inner struggles of the main characters as it is about their sports.
On finishing the book, I recall that my first thoughts were along the lines of "Hey, wait a minute! But what happened next? Did he win? What happened with them after? What? What? What?!" And then I stopped and thought it through and realized that that's not what this story is about. That's a whole other story...and it's somehow right that these questions are not answered for the reader. They're not answered for the athletes either - not until it's all over and a new post-Olympic story begins.
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The part that really got to me was Sadie's conversation with the personal injury lawyer. Neither of them could really comprehend the other's values, and I think that for the first time Sadie began to question whether simply going to the Olympics was the absolute and final goal she had always believed it to be.
This book is now going dormant for a few months, since I'll be saving it up to release during next year's Canada Day release challenge. After that, I look forward to seeing what future readers have to say about it.
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