TWENTY MILES by Cara Hedley (Coach House), 204 pages, $19.95 paper. Rating: NNNN
Hockey and poetry: not exactly your typical combo, but Cara Hedley breaks the mould by giving us just that in Twenty Miles.
It’s the story of Isabel Norris, daughter of a hockey legend who died before she was born. Carrying – more accurately, burdened with – his legacy, she was put on skates at age three, showed talent and is admitted to Winnipeg University to play for the Scarlets hockey team.
We meet her as she’s stepping into the dressing room for the first time, where she’s immediately dubbed Barbie because, blond and slight, she doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of the hardened female athlete. During the team’s first scrimmage, however, she forgets that she’s playing with women – she only played on boys’ teams in her hometown, Kenora – and bodychecks captain Hal. Barbie is brawny.
Hedley goes nowhere near the clichés of sports writing. Twenty Miles isn’t about the young star athlete who has to live up to expectations and scores the winning goal in the championship game. In fact, the book doesn’t track the Scarlets’ season at all. Narratively speaking, its interest is in whether Iz can sustain her passion for Jacob, the hunky First Nations forward she played Pee Wee with back home, and her need for the sport itself.
But more important, the novel puts us deep inside the locker-room culture of women’s hockey, supplying intimate details about the friendships, the strange rookie rituals, the food-eating competitions and the thrill these women get from playing the game.
Hedley writes like a dream. This kind of language never gets applied to sport. The Zamboni licks the ice clean; as Iz prepares to play, details of what she calls “the equipment dance” emerge in an almost musical cadence.
Rarely seen setting, terrific language, fascinating characters - Twenty Miles scores a literary hat trick.