When I decided to start a book club in 2016, I knew the first book had to hook everyone. It had to be inspirational, captivating, edifying. The Three Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway seemed to have it all: true story, inspiring teacher, underdog achievements — all set within the backdrop of Hawaii and WWII. How could I go wrong?
Unfortunately, I was sadly mistaken.
The Three Year Swim Club (or 3YSC, as the book refers to they eponymous swim team) centers around the coaching career of Soichi Sakomoto, a Japanese-American schoolteacher who not only taught some of Hawaii’s most underprivileged kids to swim but took them to compete nationally and internationally amidst a climate rife with racism and a world on the brink of war. They broke athletic and racial boundaries. The story is incredible yet true.
However, a week into “assigning” the book to the fledgling group, I was already apologizing for my choice. Why did it take a week? Simple. I hadn’t started it until Day 3.
There are a couple of problems with the book: first, the structure of the plot jumps around between characters and events with too much “lag time” in between. For example, one of the early scenes of the book features Sakomoto’s best swimmers (whom we have not yet met) competing against 5-time-Olympic medalist Duke Kahanamoku in Oahu’s Natatorium. It’s an interesting scene with all the elements that create suspense and interest in a good underdog sports story. The problem is that not only do we not know yet who the main characters will be (and thus don’t know fully who to “follow”), Checkoway drops that plot line abruptly and does not pick it up again for chapters. It’s a flash forward that doesn’t work because we’re not yet invested enough in any of the characters, so it’s nearly impossible to appreciate the significance of the moment.
These frequent shifts in time and focus can work, but there are so many of them in the 3YSC that it takes too much effort to keep track. I found myself wanting to hone in on a couple of characters: Keo Nakama, Halo Hirose, Bill Smith and Sakomoto himself. Instead, Checkoway jumps between these four characters and a host of others, telling their backstories without successfully knitting them into the main plot.
The second issue is more pressing, and — by my estimation — caused by the first. The 3YSC is bogged down in historical detail and not infused with enough humanity. As Checkoway would have it, Sakomoto married the love of his life, essentially abandoned her in favor of becoming a workaholic, and somehow their marriage comes out totally unscathed. Checkoway hints at a bit of potential strife, but of all the characters we get to know, Mary Sakomoto is not one of them. Mary plays an integral role in helping the 3YSC achieve its goals, but we never hear her internal monologue. Was she acting out of love? Duty? Patriotism? Inquiring minds want to know!
Because Checkoway jumps around so much, we don’t get to see deeply into each character’s emotions; rather, we know about their backstory. To me, it’s a classic example of telling rather than showing. Granted, Checkoway has to work off newspaper clippings and interviews with the few surviving members of the 3YSC, so it is possible she was unable to make reasonable inferences about characters’ emotions. It’s still disappointing.
What’s confusing to me about the 3YSC is its favorable ratings and reviews online. People are comparing it to Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat, both books I enjoyed. But in Unbroken, I left Louis Zamperini and his story, beautifully told by Laura Hillenbrand, knowing more about what it means to be human. I felt empathy for him that I didn’t feel for the characters in the 3YSC, even though I think I was supposed to care.
Alas, our newly birth book club started with a dud, but next month’s book is already better. Join us if you’d like! We’re reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.