Friday, February 8, 2008

Rooting--and Writing--for the Underdog

It’s hard to live in the New York area this week without being swept up in the delirium brought about by the victory of the New York Giants over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Anyone who loves an underdog can’t help but be impressed by the team that came away with a victory against the previously undefeated Goliaths of football. And the individual stories of many Giants reinforce their underdog status. Quarterback Eli Manning was the little brother, trying to emulate his champion sibling but being met by doubters all along the way. Plaxico Burress, who caught the winning touchdown pass, played all year despite debilitating ankle and knee injuries. Coach Tom Coughlin barely escaped with his job at the end of last season, when his team racked up an unimpressive record of eight wins and eight losses.

As an author who writes about sports and women’s history, I have a soft spot for underdogs. Indeed, most of the people I write about were underdogs who triumphed, defying expectations and social mores to make their mark in the world. Annie Oakley first came to fame by defeating her future husband in a shooting exhibition she was expected to lose. The women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) staked their claim to the American pastime despite an initially skeptical public. Nellie Bly, the subject of one of my next books, broke into New York’s old boy newspaper network despite editors who came right out and told her they wouldn’t trust a woman to cover anything but society events.

Underdogs make good stories, especially when the readers are kids, who often feel disenfranchised themselves. If they can see their struggles reflected in those of the people in my books, the past suddenly seems relevant, and reading about history isn’t a turnoff. And the points of identification don’t have to be obvious. While girls have embraced the female baseball players of the AAGPBL, I often find that boys are more animated and ask more questions when I give talks about the league. Boys who play sports relate to the women as athletes, and love the opportunity to measure their own experiences against those of the Chicks, Peaches, and Daisies.

Fortunately for both authors and readers, history is full of victorious underdogs whose lives and deeds are ripe for examination. Patriots fans can even take heart that in 1781, the ragtag Revolutionary War soldiers who inspired the name of their modern-day football team came away with a clutch victory against the giants of Great Britain. That was definitely an underdog triumph for the ages.


Olugbemisola (Mrs.Pilkington) said...

Great post -- underdog stories in any medium get me every time. (And that sure was a storybook Superbowl!)

Linda Salzman said...

I wondered if writing about underdogs was a conscious decision from the beginning or a trend you noticed looking back to your choice of subjects?

That's a great connection for the Patriot fans. With baseball season just around the corner, I'm looking forward to seeing if you can come up with something for those poor beleagured Cubs fans.

Anna M. Lewis said...

Those are great books to inspire girls... heck, I want to go read them now!

If you read my blog, I was rooting for the 'blue' guys...
isn't that an amazing blue helmet? (I had fun annoying the kids!)

Sue Macy said...

When I was in college, I studied social history, which I saw as the aspect of history that was left out of my high school textbooks. I've always been interested in the lives of everyday people and reformers who worked to change the system. So I guess I've been interested in underdogs from way back.

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