Book Review by Emily-Jane Hills Orford
Amazon Books, Goodreads, Milford House – paperback and Kindle eBook
The mighty oak tree is so named with reverence and pride as it’s often referred to as the workhorse of the forest. It’s longevity and its
relative immunity to the diseases that have plagued and wiped out other trees, make it the ideal symbol of something strong and powerful. Hitler believed in symbolism and it’s not to be taken lightly that those who won medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics were presented with an oak tree seedling – a striking symbol for those who would admire it around the world and, presumably according to Hitler’s thinking, connect the symbolism to the might and power of the growing regime in Germany.
We think life is difficult now, with all the uncertainties of a world pandemic, racial discrimination and multiple unsettling events around the world. Take a time leap back to the 1936 World Olympics in Berlin and you’ll see an unsettling beginning of another era of racial discrimination, unrest and multiple troubling events. John Woodruff (1915-2007), nicknamed Long John for his long legs and long running stride, was an Olympic contender in 1936 and a gold medalist for the 800-meter race. His gold medal victory was more than a medal and an oak tree seedling; it was a powerful symbol of his own making, a black man from America who outran the great Aryans on the German team. Hitler wasn’t happy when his team didn’t win; he was less happy when they lost to what he believed was an inferior race of people.
David Orange has researched extensively the life of John Woodruff. His biographical novel, “Long John: The Longest Stride”, is a fitting tribute to a man who became a shining example of the power of good against evil. The novel is part biography, and part historical fiction and even creative nonfiction. The author becomes John’s voice as Old John, as he became known in his later years, revisits his hometown of Connellsville, Pennsylvania, to sit once again underneath his mighty oak tree, the very seedling he was given at the Berlin Olympics. The year is 2001 and Old John is eighty-six. This will be his last visit home. He has lost both of his legs and now depends on a wheelchair to get around, but Old John still has a special spark of life.
The story begins with the visit to the oak tree and the young track stars who visit him to hear the stories of the great man who brought home a gold medal from the 1936 Olympics. One particular young girl remains behind after the other young runners depart. She wants to hear all of Old John’s story, from Old John himself. And the once famous track star is more than willing to oblige.
The story unfolds with some parts being told in 2001 to the young girl and other parts being an unravelling of his past from his early days of running around Connellsville, through his years at college and competing for amateur track events until finally making it onto the United States Olympic team. Most of the story focuses on the events leading up to, during and the aftermath of the Berlin Olympics. Accompanied by historic photographs, the author provides insight into the history of the era. There are chapters that take into consideration the feared dictator’s perspective as Hitler intends to make his Olympic event a shining symbol of his growing empire and the power of his all-white race. These are very troubling scenes to read as one shudders at the madness of the man behind the horrors of this era.
The story is told mostly in third-person narrative with considerable dialogue to move the story along. There is a concise biography of John Woodruff at the end, along with a chronology of his life. The author also provides insight into his own personal connection to the legend and the old oak tree that continues to inspire young track stars.
This is a powerful look at what was and what, sadly, is still prevalent in this era. With the author’s compelling ability to lure the reader into the era and the events as they unfold, this novel tells a story not just of one man who overcame racial disparities, but became a star in his own right that would inspire a whole new generation of those who will seek to overturn the wheels of injustice that continue to haunt the world. Despite the historic figures of the 1930s who stood in the way of Long John’s (and some of his colleagues) success, this man had the perseverance to rise above the injustices and become the best person he could be, not just on the running field, but also in life itself. In his poignant words about the oak tree, Long John said, “This tree will always remind me of beating Hitler.” As the tree grew, it became a living testament, a symbol of its own, that we can all overcome the handicaps presented us in this life, even when they are unfair handicaps.
I enjoyed David’s novel and learned a lot about a track star who made history, more than once in his lifetime. The author’s penchant for sharing a good story shines through this riveting novel of life, racial disparity and history that continually repeats itself.
Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford, award-winning author of “Queen Mary’s Daughter” and “Mrs. Murphy’s Ghost”.