Book Review: Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports by John Branch

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Sidecountry is a collection of some of John Branch’s favorite articles. Branch, a Pulitzer Prize winning sports journalist for the New York Times, treats his readers to “something different, something unexpected. They would never ask for it, because they wouldn’t know to ask.”

I read Sidecountry (which is a name for the skiable part of a mountain just beyond the groomed and safer slopes) as part of the 2022 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. August’s challenge was to read a book chosen by a friend in honor of Friendship Day (August 7). Having someone else pick what you read can be hit or miss, but I’m happy to say – great job, Robin!

This collection of sports stories lives up to its promise to “provide the unforeseen pleasure,” and it does this by detailing events and the stories behind them that most of us have never heard of. Examples include a deadly avalanche, the dangerous recovery of frozen bodies from Mount Everest, and the girls basketball team from a county run juvenile system high school that had the longest losing streak in the country.

The book is about much more than sports. The author, with his concise writing style and knack for story structure, paints a compelling picture of the people behind the events to make them far more intimate than your average sports story. Ultimately, these stories are about lives and human characteristics such as perseverance, excellence, passion, and tragic weakness.

As an example, the story about the Carroll Academy losing streak – the longest section in the book – chronicles the lives of several teenage girls as they struggle with issues like poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and teen pregnancy. It ultimately provides a snapshot of the vicious and frustrating cycle of poverty.

The book opens with an intense, Pulitzer winning story about an avalanche that killed three experienced skiers in Washington in 2012. But all the stories aren’t tragic; Branch also tells us about figure eight racing in Indiana and the world’s greatest horseshoe player whom most of us have never heard of.

As someone who likes learning about new things, I found these “out of the way” stories fascinating and I felt like I was digesting a delectable little slice of Americana.

The only drawback is that the sections of one story are sometimes repetitive, which disturbed some Amazon reviewers to no end. Some of the stories, like the Carroll Academy one, were published as a series and the author also went back to the town a year later to follow up, both of which required repeating some of the basic facts over and over. It’s a little weird, but tolerable if you understand the context.

Overall, I give Sidecountry an enthusiastic thumbs up for its excellent writing and fascinating topics. Thanks for the recommendation, Robin!

**Reminder – September’s challenge is to read a book by a Central or South American author in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports by John Branch

  1. We both agree on this one – it was really a fun book! In fact, I recommended it to others as well. It reminded me of a magazine that I read that often times has longer articles dealing with less traditional aspects of outdoors. Just like this book, those are the stories that captivate my attention when reading the magazine. I really enjoyed the variety of stories as well as variety in the length of the stories. It never seemed like I got into a lull with a continually changing story cadence. I loved the horseshoe story! I bet cornhole will be included in his next book, or at least I hope so…

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  2. So glad you enjoyed this, Michelle! 😉 I will say that this is one of those books that I’m still thinking about weeks after finishing it. I really appreciated the aspects of individual skill, perseverance, courage in these unique sport communities–all woven into “delectable slices of Americana” as you said so well. I’m happy to have shared it with you and George!

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