The inspiration for this post is In Lane Three, Alex Archer, by Tessa Duder. A film based on this book, Alex: The Heart of a Champion, is currently available in the US on Amazon Prime.
I’m not a great swimmer, but I love to swim and be in the water. If you feel the same, the Alex Archer series from New Zealand is for you. The cover photo of The Lois Level is a view from my backyard, that I can see from almost every room in my home.
After I finished this post, I realized how much the water has historically offered freedom for women, in so many different ways.
I first read In Lane Three Alex Archer some time ago. I think I was lucky to get it during a brief time during which it was available in the United States, and for that reason, I’ve hung on to my copy for a long time. Because it’s so difficult to get in the US, I was hesitant to feature it, but then, to my surprise, I spotted Alex: The Spirit of a Champion on Amazon Prime. Yes, they’ve imported the movie, but not the book, so far. I’m writing about this book in hopes that the Alex Archer books (there are actually four) will go into print in the United States.
There are several things I like about this book that make it a cut above the average Young Adult book. For one thing, Alex comes across as a young adult even though she actually struggles with an issue that is common to “teenagers” her age: being overcommitted and trying to do too many things. Alex’s problem is that she wants to be typical in that she is involved in several extracurricular activities and strong academically, but she has gotten to the point that her natural ability just isn’t enough anymore, especially because she has some strong competition from a rival with less ability but more drive and determination.
Alex has several pressures in her life, but really no more than the average person, except that she has a gift, and the support she needs…her decision is what is she going to do with it.
Another interesting aspect is the time in which the novel is set…the very late 1950’s. When Alex struggles to make something of herself, she in fact also coming up against the expectations of her time…a time when women’s roles very narrow. In the pool, Alex frequently swims with the boys because she is more competitive with them than she is with the bulk of the girls, but at school, the expectations that her schooling is really in preparation for life as a wife and mother is made clear.
And finally, this book is set in New Zealand, so as readers we get an inside view of a culture that for the most part is illusive to Americans. I don’t know if other people feel this way, but I’m often frustrated that we don’t have more literature from “down under” since we share a language with both New Zealand and Australia. While I have never been to either country, during my extensive time overseas I have worked with citizens of both countries. They have a lot to share with us, and I wish access to their culture were more readily available. One of the things I especially appreciate is that swimming is a major sport in both countries, one that everyone seems to take seriously.
None of the Alex books are in print in the United States although ironically, they seem to be cheaper in the US than in Australia. Used copies are available for less than $5 US, depending on when you look. Also, there is a newly published edition of all four Alex books, so if you find yourself in New Zealand, look for it!
Ironically, one of Tessa Duder’s few books for adults is easily available in the US on Kindle! It is a short story collection about women who just aren’t ready to give it up.
Tessa Duder was a swimming champion in the butterfly in the late 1950’s-early 60’s in New Zealand, so she has first-hand knowledge of the sport during that time.
Read her biography on her web page here.
Here are photos of the current covers of the four Alex Archer books as published in NZ so you can spot them. Images are from Tessa Duder’s website, which is the best place to learn about her other books since their availability outside of New Zealand is very spotty.
More books about female swimmers and swimming
I didn’t even know that this type of swimming is a thing, other than swimming the English Channel. Amazing book.
If you don’t know who Esther Williams was, you must read this book. She started out as an Olympic hopeful in the U.S., and when that didn’t work out, she started making movies. Yes, glamour swimming movies. You have got to see them to believe them.
My favorite is the story of another real person, Annette Kellerman, an Australian who caused a scandal by wearing the bathing suit pictured…no kidding! She also did amazing water shows in the same vein as Esther Williams, only live!
Check out this clip…and remember, this was all really staged!
Dangerous When Wet is also good, and features a sequence of Williams swimming in a cartoon.
There are several more that are all enjoyable if you get that these movies are about swimming, stunts, and spectacle.
First, Esther Williams movies are sexy and glamorous (get that title) but somehow wholesome…I mean, we are talking physical fitness here, right?
Even the ensemble performances in these movies are amazing to me, when you consider that during this time, not that many people could swim at all.
Speaking of horses, I must mention my daughter’s favorite movie of all time (I’m pretty sure), Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. It’s got horses, diving…actually diving horses…mixed with Depression-Era carnies.
Here’s the trailer….
Scroll fast if you want to read THE BOOK because this is a true story…unfortunately, the cover is a bit of a spoiler if you’re going to watch the film.
This is a great one to enjoy with your entire family. I defy anyone not to like it.
If you want some fiction after all of this amazing nonfiction, try Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. I usually prefer nonfiction to historical fiction, but this WW2 story of a female diver is amazingly well done.
And I’ve been dying to read Lisa See’s new book about diving women…See is another author I like even though her genre is one I generally do not.
And if women swim, can’t they plunder on the sea? (See, you really don’t need fiction on this topic)
Or under? This is a great gift book for the mermaid in your life.
If you want still more, check out Top 10 Books about Swimming from The Guardian.