Lori Weber on true hockey story behind Lightning Lou

Lori Weber delves into a quirky corner of women's hockey history in her new novel for middle-grade kids, Lightning Lou. The book takes place during the First World War, when women's hockey was enjoying the spotlight for the first time, as Canadian men shipped off overseas to serve in the war. Weber's story follows a 12-year-old boy so desperate to play hockey he disguises himself as a girl and plays on a women's team called the Bakers.

Lightning Lou is inspired by the true story of a 17-year-old hockey prodigy named Ada Lalonde. The Montreal Westerns recruited Lalonde as an answer to superstars Eva Ault and Albertine "Miracle Maid" Lapensée. Before Lalonde played a single game, it was discovered he was a man.

In her own words, Weber describes the process of writing Lightning Lou.


Gender switch
I thought it was so unusual historically for a boy to disguise himself as a girl to gain any kind of advantage. There's tons of stories historically of girls who've disguised themselves as boys in order to have adventures and go off and do wonderful things, including recently the story of the Pakistani squash player Maria Toorpakai, who disguised herself as a boy for years in order to be able to play. It just piqued my imagination that here was a boy disguising himself as a girl.

Also, I found the whole history of women's hockey in that era really interesting because it was kind of a heyday for girl's hockey teams because there were no boy's hockey teams at the time. The girls really took centre stage. I was sparked by a very short clip about Ada Lalonde from CBC's Hockey: A People's History documentary series. I thought, "I wonder who this young man really was? What made him so desperate to pretend to be a girl?" In terms of gender, it's interesting because usually boys are very phobic about being compared to girls, but here was a young man willing to risk it just to play hockey.

weber-hiwi-pic.pngLori Weber talking to young students about her picture book My Granny Loves Hockey. (Courtesy of Lori Weber).

History lesson
My main character Lou goes in very cocky. He fully expects he's going to be the star of his team. He, like the other men in his village, just don't believe that girls can play hockey. He has a real dressing down, no pun intended, when he gets on his team and he sees that girls really can play hockey. He learns a lot about how difficult it was to be a girl with big dreams in those days. There's nowhere for these girls to go with their hockey. What's waiting for one of the girls is the convent. What's waiting for the others is marriage and having 25 babies. It really opens his eyes about just what the limitations of being female at that time were. The whole experience makes him a more sensitive person, which was something else I loved playing with in the book. That's a theme that's really important to me.

I teach teenagers and kids today. Often, kids of both genders think that life was always this way for girls. All the doors were always open. That whatever sport they want to play they can play. But those privileges didn't always exist. They were fought for and they were won, sometimes really painfully. I'm hoping the reader has the same experience as Lou, because his eyes are being open, as to how difficult life was for girls. I think that's incredibly valuable, possibly even more so today. We think there's full gender equality, but clearly there isn't. Girls are still targeted in far too many ways. I'm hoping male readers will learn about respect and female readers will learn more about their history.

weber-hiwi-quote.pngMontrealer Lori Weber is a huge Montreal Canadiens fan. (Courtesy of Lori Weber)

Hockey fan
I really don't think I could've written a book if I wasn't a big hockey fan. It was probably the least personal of my books in a lot of ways. My young adult novels weren't autobiographical per se, but they always had a thread, a strain running through them where I could say, "Yeah, that happened to me," or, "I can relate to that," or, "It happened to female friends that I had." This book was the most removed in a sense from my personal experience, but it didn't feel that way when I was writing it.

I think the thing I could relate to was his passion for hockey. Not that I ever played hockey; women of my generation, we really didn't have that opportunity. But having a love of hockey and the Montreal Canadiens, it was really fun for me to read up on and learn more about the history of the Canadiens. I don't think I could have written the book if I hadn't been a huge hockey fan. I probably wouldn't have even watched the documentary that gave me the idea for the book. I hope that comes through when someone reads the book, that the person behind it is someone who is really passionate about hockey.

Lori Weber's comments have been edited and condensed.