The original idea for my second novel, The Detour, was sparked by seeing a photograph of the ancient Greco-Roman Discus Thrower statue, and a footnote explaining that Hitler was obsessed with the work and insisted upon buying it, against the objections of many Italians, in 1938. (I wanted to know why Hitler wanted it so badly, what he was seeing in the statue that I couldn’t fathom at first, and why this would have significance on the eve of World War II.)
That’s the novel’s trigger, but it’s not everything. After the novel was finished, I started asking myself about what in my own background made me so curious about athletic symbols, German culture, and the idea of physical perfection in the first place.
I am descended from German and Italian ancestors, and I married into a Jewish family that includes relatives who barely escaped the Holocaust—as well as some who didn’t. All of those facts inform this novel and my own thematic and philosophical concerns.
But if I can take just one side of that family story today: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my maternal grandfather, John Cress, German-American (among other mixed ethnicities), a high school gymnastics and springboard diving coach well-known in the Chicagoland area. He was part of one of the nation’s earliest college gymnastics teams, at the University of Illinois, in the 1930s, when the sport was not particularly well-known. Later, he introduced some of the first gymnastic programs to several high schools. A gymnastics invitational is named after him, and he was inducted into the Illinois Gymnastics Hall of Fame. But he was also a student of history, a member of the military, and a former vaudevillian who performed gymnastic tricks of agility, strength, and grace at fairs and circuses. My mother and aunt were raised performing athletic stunts and visiting the German-American “Turner Halls”—community centers with a strong fitness component that really launched the idea of physical education in America.
My grandfather—“Papa Coach,” as everyone knew him—instilled all of us with that classic German concept, “Sound mind, sound body.” He did everything he could to promote our participation in sports. This is the positive side of the German (and Ancient Greek) obsession with the ideal, physical human form. The corruption of that idea– which my grandfather and his fellow Turners did not support– is the Nazi obsession with genetics, a false idea about the perfection of the Aryan race.
In his 70s, my grandfather was hospitalized after a cycling accident in which he was training on the icy track of an outdoor velodrome, getting ready for sprinting races. When the doctor found out how he’d fallen and broken his hip—at that age—he was astounded.
When I look at the Discus Thrower statue, I see Mediterranean features that in some way resemble my own, a balanced muscular physique that resembled my grandfather’s, and an idea, in an extreme and corrupted form, which came close to wiping out my husband’s family. Every good idea, taken too far, can become grotesque.
If my grandfather were alive today, he might or might not see how he helped inspire this novel. Only today, when I went searching for a graphic to accompany this post, did I discover that the logo for the German-American Turner Society, of which he was proud, is the central image and object of The Detour: a discus thrower.