M. Ann Hall’s attractively produced and heavily illustrated book tells the remarkable story of the Edmonton Grads women’s basketball team, who came to dominate their sport in Canada between 1915 and 1940. Over ten chapters, which are grounded in a broad sweep of the available archival sources (including numerous oral history interviews), Hall considers the success of the Grads in the context of changing opportunities for women in sport. Her book is a valuable contribution to the wider, growing literature on women’s sport and physical culture, as well as to the emerging scholarship on the cultural facets of student life. But it is also a book that tells a much bigger story – that of Edmonton’s growing presence in Canada over the course of the twentieth century and the prominence of sport as a force for civic boosterism. Although today we may think of the NHL franchise, which grew out of the pioneering World Hockey Association franchise of 1972, as a defining characteristic of the city and its key industry, oil, in the 1920s and 1930s the Grads provided Edmonton with a reason to cheer. Writes Hall, ‘They were the first sports team to bring valuable attention and publicity to our city. Wherever they travelled and played, people learned about Edmonton and Alberta and Canada’ (pp. xxi-xxii).
Given that Hall has rescued the story of the Grads from unfair obscurity – this is the first book to tell their story – it would be remiss to critique the book too heavily, particularly given that it is designed for a general and academic audience (and successfully navigates between the two readerships). There are times, perhaps, when more might have been made of the striking photographs. Take, for instance, the cover of Les Sportives reprinted on page 60. It is impossible to ignore the significant height difference between the French women – the Elite Parisienne – and the Grads of Edmonton. To a woman the French are shorter, often by several inches. It is a pity that Hall lets those facets of the social history of the period pass by without comment. Similarly there might have been slightly closer engagement with the existing sports history literature, particularly in the context of international competition and the controversy over the 1936 Olympics. Still, the book sets out to tell the history of the Grads, from the origins to their final, poignant reunion in 1987. Her book is extremely successful and deserves to be read by all those with an interest in sport, in women’s history and in twentieth-century Canada more generally.