Friday, March 25
Surfer of the Century
by Ellie Crowe
illustrations by Richard Waldrep
Lee and Low 2007
A bit of bait-and-switch on this picture book biography of the father of modern surfing as it focuses more on his accomplishments as a swimmer.
As a kid, "Duke" wasn't much for school, but he loved the water. He loved swimming and surfing, riding the waves at Waikiki Beach on 100-plus pound long board made of koa wood that was twice as long as he was tall. He was a strong and powerful swimmer and he even developed his own way of kicking through the water in a way that has been adapted by swimmers since. He caught the eye of a local lawyer who offered to train Duke for competition and he eventually made his way to the Olympics where he took gold and silver medals in 1912, 1920, and 1924. He did some time as a bit player in Hollywood, was sheriff of Honolulu for 13 consecutive terms. Oh, and did all he could to promote surfing as a sport.
No doubt Kahanamoku lived a rich and full life, diverse and interesting and a good topic for a biography, but I felt a little cheated when I turned the last page. Duke's title as Surfer of the Century was thirty years posthumous, and while he was active in the sport its inclusion in this biography felt almost more obligatory than key to the subject. For a generation of post-war surfers, particularly those who competed in the 1960s, Duke was revered as the father of surfing and he saw himself as more of a world-wide ambassador. A search of videos on YouTube will turn up a brief interview where he's asked which was better, winning five Olympic medals over a twenty year period or swimming the great waves off Castle Surf, and while he initially plays diplomatic and says they were equally great he does finally admit that surfing was a greater thrill.
I realize I've once again compared a book as written against the book I wanted to read, but can I make a case for being led on? With a title like Surfer of the Century is it wrong to expect a story to be more about surfing that swimming? By highlighting his swimming achievements – which are nothing to scoff, he did break Olympic records that stood nearly two decades until broken by Johnny Weissmuller – I almost feel like they are treated as more legitimate as a result of their international stature. I wanted to know more about the status of surfing, its history, and how it began and changed over time. None of that is here. I wanted to know why Duke was held in such high esteem by the surfing crowd -- there is mention of his legendary two-mile ride of one long wave, but no context for understanding how remarkable that accomplishment was and remains. I don't think it's wrong to imagine that few younger readers wouldn't be interested to know more about surfing, and about a legend among surfers, who would be equally disappointed to find a biography full of so much non-surfing detail.
Or maybe what's missing are the sort of stories that really make a character stand out. We get the story of Duke's rescuing fisherman whose boat had capsized and how it would lead to beach lifeguards keeping rescue boards on the beaches. That's good. What is perhaps not fitting a "gentle" biography is the fact that on another occasion, while training for the Olympics in the Pacific Ocean off Long Beach, Duke battled a ten-foot eel, losing his finger in the battle and calling into question his ability to swim again (he did). We read that Duke was sheriff for over 25 years and no mention of whether or not he surfed during that time, no mention that this was before, during, and after WWII, he just sort of drops away from the story then. I'll grant that when creating a limited biography, as the picture book biography is by necessity, one must pick and choose details, but again I keep wondering where the father of surfing is during these gaps. If it turns out that his surfing legends were from his boyhood days, and his title and admiration are mostly honorary and ceremonial, then perhaps a different title is in order. Or at the very least a better explanation as to why the focus of his life tends to veer toward the non-surfing side of things.
On the one hand, I feel horrible; there aren't enough picture book biographies on minorities and I cannot think of another about a Hawaiian, much less any other Pacific Islander that isn't fiction. But when there is an opportunity to cross a child's interest in a sport like surfing in addition to a biography about a previously unknown biographical subject who also happens to be a lesser-seen minority, it seems a shame to not deliver on that promise.