That the basic plot of Isobel’s Stanley Cup is predictable does not take away from the rush of happiness we experience when Isobel helps save the day. So what is it, then, that raises this common story of girl-impersonates-boy-and-succeeds to a new level? I’m going to go with Kristin Butcher’s ability with character. I have always loved her young adult fiction, especially Truths I Learned from Sam (2013), and without exception it is her characters who pull me into the stories and hold me there, caught up in their lives until the end of the novel, often longer. With a chapter book such as Isobel’s Stanley Cup, of course, we do not have as long an engagement with the story, yet even with only 84 pages to build the connection, we cheer as loudly as any hockey fans when nine-year-old Isobel Harkness helps her brothers win against the team of local hockey bullies.
The story is set in 1893, the year after Lord Stanley, Governor-General of Canada, created the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup award, now the famous Stanley Cup. The award was created, we are told, at the instigation of his children—including his own daughter Isobel—who were all avid hockey fans. Isobel Harkness idolizes Isobel Stanley as an example of girls who have broken through the ice ceiling, and promises herself and her family that times are changing and that she will be a part of it. In a brief meeting with her hero, our Isobel learns a basic truth of life for smaller people: if you can’t be physically large and strong, be fast, or smart, or agile, or… whatever it takes. In hockey, Isobel is told, fast is the way to go.
In imitation of Lord Stanley’s award, the Harkness siblings—Isobel and her five older brothers—plan their own challenge amongst the local teams, hoping adult-referred games will discourage cheating and bullying. Isobel, who cannot contribute on the ice, is tasked with finding the prize, which turns out to be an old silver bowl that mother attaches to a base of wooden blocks: Isobel’s Stanley Cup. Faithful to the trope, two players are injured out of the final game, and for her brothers to have a chance, Isobel must play, dressed in her brother Billy’s clothes. Her speed, agility, and deep understanding of hockey techniques—gained through weeks of “coaching” her brothers in their practices—enable her to make the final assist, her brother Freddie the final goal, to win the challenge.
At first the Harkness family appears to be the stereotypic, patriarchal Victorian family, with father laying down the law regarding his daughter’s activities, mother supporting him, and the boys living an entitled life of masculine freedom. This is belied, though, by the obvious fairness and affection amongst the family members; by Isobel’s brothers’ willingness to help her circumvent parental authority and join them on the ice; by her mother’s encouragement of skating—if not hockey; and finally by her father’s ability to admit when he is wrong. These very believably drawn characters work together to give us a story that highlights the strength of a young Victorian girl making the smallest of cracks in that ceiling of discrimination. Although Isobel’s individual triumph is played out on a small, flooded field, her determination to follow in the footsteps of Isobel Stanley and other women who were creating a space for women in sports, transcends her historical moment: young readers of all genders will identify fully with her need to prove herself and her inner strength to do so.
Isobel Stanley (in white) and friends, playing hockey in Ottawa c1890 (image held by Library and Archives Canada). This is purportedly the first photo of women playing hockey in Canada; it is included in the historical information at the back of Isobel’s Stanley Cup.