Babe Conquers the World: The Legendary Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, by Rich Wallace and Sandra Neil Wallace, is a wonderful new biography out now from Calkins Creek.
I have to admit, my reading of Babe Conquers the World got off to a rocky start. I’d flipped through the book, read bits here and there, looked at some of the photographs and captions, and I was really excited to read it. But in their introduction, the Wallaces assert that Babe “wasn’t a feminist.” That rankled me. From what I already knew about her, from the little bits I’d gleaned on my pre-reading, she absolutely was a feminist. (Assuming, of course, that you define feminist as someone who believes women should have equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights as men.) I grumbled about the assertion as I began to read, already composing in my head how I would address that sentence in the review.
But as I read, I began to see what they meant. Babe broke record after record, and forged new ground for women in many facets of sports, and by extension, life. Her determination that her gender should and would not get in the way of anything she decided to do certainly made her a feminist. But, having read Babe Conquers The World, I understand the authors’ statement. None of Babe’s triumphs or records were about politics. She wasn’t trying to change society or the world. Everything she did was personal, the focus and result of an incessant drive to win, at everything and anything, for her personal glory. It was a happy accident that every win, every record or boundary broken, also fostered change that benefitted the multitudes of women athletes and boundary-breakers that would follow her. In pursuing unrelenting success, Babe lived the feminist ideal — that her gender was or should be immaterial to what she could accomplish – regardless of her reasons for being so relentlessly driven.
The book is divided into sections focusing on both the stages of Babe’s life and sports career, but also on the barriers she had to hurdle or smash to succeed (Babe vs. The Boys, Babe vs. The Girls, etc.). It is beautifully designed, with a plethora of interesting photographs and documents used to highlight and supplement the text. The Wallaces have a deft touch for infusing Babe’s story with historical context, which not only serves to show just how extraordinary Babe was, but to provide additional cultural information for young readers. The book admirably celebrates Babe’s personality, drive, determination and vision, but it does so alongside acknowledging her tenacious, selfish focus. Without taking the shine off her glory, the Wallaces show readers some of the negative effects Babe’s efforts for personal glory sometimes had on friends, family and teammates. Babe was a force to be reckoned with, who changed the face of women’s sports forever. But she did so to satisfy her own drive to win.
Most interestingly the book ends on counter point to where it begins. After being diagnosed with cancer, Babe was told her professional golf days were done. But she worked her way back to the professional women’s golf tour, and celebrated her win by sharing her victory with the many doctors and cancer patients who had cheered her on. Ultimately, cancer was a battle she could not win, but in talking about her cancer at a time when many did not, she again helped forge new ground.
If there is a weak spot in Babe Conquers the World, it may be in the chapters involving Babe’s relationships with her husband George and her close friend, and rumored lover, Betty Dodd. Some historians would challenge the presentation of Babe’s marriage to George as being less the loving, romantic relationship presented by the Wallaces, and would include more detail about the closeness of Babe’s relationship with Betty Dodd, especially near the end of Babe’s life. To be fair, the Wallaces address the issue in the back matter by asserting that if Betty and Babe were lovers, they kept their relationship private. Within the book’s text itself, the Wallaces have included some information to at least hint at the behind-closed-doors relationship these two women may have shared, consistent with the back matter explanation, and it is likely a matter of debate between historians whether the presentations of the relationships are ultimately accurate.
Babe Conquers the World will appeal to many young readers, with its fast pace fueled by Babe’s personality and record-breaking talents, and with a wonderful mix of sports, history and celebrity intertwined. Overall, a worthwhile and enjoyable read, with extensive back matter that allows for additional exploration of Babe’s life and times for those readers looking for more.