I don’t usually look to the best seller list for reading material. But recently a Seattle friend sent us a copy of “The Boys In The Boat,” and it ran away with my heart.
This remarkable account of the true story of the University of Washington crew team who rowed their way into history as they pursued the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin brims with drama and beauty. It’s got real life heroes and villains, thrilling adventure, heartbreak and romance, even a touch of humor. But what makes Daniel James Brown’s brilliant book so deeply compelling is his keen appreciation for the almost spiritual aspect of the sport itself, and the reverence it inspires in its followers.
Among the fine portraits in the book is that of George Pocock, the British boatman whose careful crafting of racing shells, combined with his astute observations on the fine points of rowing, gave the Washington team a priceless advantage.
Describing the mysterious alchemy of character and strength that produced the eight-man crew team that defied all the odds, Brown’s prose at times borders on poetry. He grounds his narrative in the particular experience of Joe Rantz, one of the eight boys, and Joe comes across as pure of heart and brave of spirit. But in order to become one with his crew mates, he has to learn to let go of his self and trust the team.
Perhaps the most evocative passages in the book deal with a thing called “swing.” When the eight boys are rowing as one, when their hearts and minds are “in the boat” and the pain slips out of sight, the crew is said to have found its swing. And when that happens, well, you just have to be there.
Set in the darkest years of the Depression, the story pits the under-financed Western team against the privileged teams of the East. But when the team had to compete against Hitler’s specially picked and specially favored team in the cold Berlin waters, they demonstrated all that is best about Americans on the world’s largest stage, at one of the pivotal moments in history.
In the current self-obsessed state of our nation, where self promotion and self fulfillment, not to mention the plague of “selfies,” are viewed as perfectly natural, Joe’s willingness to sacrifice and struggle for the good of his team is inspiring on every level.
For anyone feeling discouraged by the rude and random waves of our current world, I suggest dipping into “The Boys In The Boat”.
They didn’t walk on water. They rowed their way into the stars.