Weighing enough to read or keep paddling?
When Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat first came out last year, my coach Paul Bloom at UConn wanted us all to read it. I knew I would eventually, and when it came out in paperback I got a copy to mark up the good parts to keep in my duffle. But it wasn’t that kind of book. I wouldn’t find a new, inspirational way to call for a power ten for the boys in my boat to pull harder and tap into some drive that even they didn’t know they still had. These boys hailing from the University of Washington were the other Huskies, the ones who won the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics right in front of Hitler. I’ve held an Olympic gold medal once for an unforgettable brief moment. It feels cold, hard and solid, heavy in a fulfilling and complete way. Just being in the presence of gold and an Olympian is inspiring. To win one must be divine. But Brown’s book isn’t about winning a race but to survive past the opposition.
Brown offers a lot of rowing knowledge, history and technique throughout his nonfiction narrative. Through impeccable pacing and detail Brown really connects to the essence of what it feels like to be a rower. There is a pulse to the story as Brown captures the rhythm and language of rowing and writes from the heart. The narrative is framed on third seat rower Joe Rantz, from his sad but resilient childhood to the dying man in his nineties who wanted this story to be “Not just about me. It had to be about the boat.” Brown does tell the story of the boat, but makes the story personal using Joe Rantz’s life set against the Depression, the Dust Bowl, Hitler’s militarization of Germany, and the propaganda of German cinema. The coordinated effort of event and circumstance is amazing to read but just part of the story.
There is also the ongoing rowing rivalry between University of California, Berkeley and UW, especially by the coaches. Brown gives a lot of insight to UW’s winning record through Varsity Coach Al Ulbrickson, UW Novice Coach Thomas Bolles, and Cal Berkeley Varsity Coach Ky Ebright who had coxed for UW. My favorite personality was Brit George Yeoman Pocock who built cedar racing shells for most of the collegiate crew teams in the country on the second floor of the UW boathouse. Pocock was a self-taught rower who adapted the short quick stroke, a quick catch and a quick release from watching watermen ferrying passengers on the Thames. Brown uses a spot on quotation from Pocock to start every chapter ironic as the proper Brit never offered unsolicited advice. But Pocock was always called upon going back to the boys at Eton, the East Coast Ivies, Wisconsin and a pesky Ky Ebright.
These boys on the water were heroes. These boys on the water had skill, drive and swing as they feathered in unison with that swoosh of power that every rower instinctually feels deep in their core. There is no doubt that every rower wants to win, but the 1936 Olympic team hailing from UW had the humility, the intelligence and the will to survive. What Brown has done here was to hand humanity a how to book to row faster, stronger, and further beyond our blisters, egos and time trials but also how to row faster, stronger and further beyond the Depression, the Dust Bowl, abandonment and hunger. These boys rowed because they all mattered. They did whatever they could to move forward in tough times. They were tough because they had to be. They found power in each other and each stroke because they put heart, body and mind in the boat. Mind in boat was their mantra as it should be, but for these boys it was religion.
My rating for The Boys in the Boat is five oars because it is the most I can give any book. I’m stowing my marked up copy in my duffle for inspiration and to be reminded of the potential we all share. The Boys in the Boat offers an exhilarating way to slip away from all of life’s trepidations for the reader just as it did for these boys as they pulled water. No rowing experience necessary.