By Mackenzie Louise*
Editors’ Note: Mackenzie reached out to us recently and asked if we’d be interested in publishing some book reviews. Since brunch conversation ranges from last night to last week’s date to work woes to what you’re reading at the beach this summer, we thought, of course! So, depending on if Mackenzie’s up for it, we might be featuring a few book reviews in the future.
The Summer Olympics are coming up in a few weeks, and yes, I know, you’re just looking forward to watching Michael Phelps one final time in the pool, and maybe you also like watching the gymnasts. Personally, I was more of a Winter Olympics fan because of my 2nd grade teacher’s fascination with ice skating—that is, until I was awestruck by the Beijing Opening Ceremony in 2008, and later in 2012 I bonded over the Olympics at a family reunion. This year, I’m ready for the Olympics because I’ve just read Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, and even though I have rowed, I’ve never wanted to watch rowboats race each other as eagerly as I want to this year.
The Boys in the Boat tells the history of the University of Washington’s rowing team that took gold in the 1936 Olympic Games. Those Olympic Games were held in Nazi Germany, and Brown expertly connects the happenings of the U of Washington shellhouse to the happenings of Nazi Germany so closely that it is hard to believe the one was not on the other's mind at that moment in history. We get a glimpse into Nazi propaganda and the toil Hitler took to mislead the entire world by hosting the Games. The Ministry of Propaganda curated an image that would welcome those worldwide by removing anti-Semitic posters, moving Jews out of the city center, filling apartments temporarily with the homeless, putting flowerpots on the sills of every apartment—even the empty ones—and ensuring there were far more swastikas than blades of grass in Berlin that summer. And the only German team not handpicked by Hitler himself, or his regime, was the rowing team, although the team was likely heavily subsidized. The German rowers looked as though they were going to sweep gold that summer. But.
In the American 8-oarsmen (plus a coxswain) boat from the U of Washington were nine young men who, despite their own victories on the West Coast, kept losing in the races that mattered on the East Coast. The sport of the elite, the sport you probably cannot separate from images of the Ivy League or Oxford, was not meant for the poor boys of the West. Too rugged, too bulky, they were not expected to have the grace and poise of the moneyed New Yorkers. Yet, it was precisely their lack of money that built their bodies for the hard labor of rowing, their minds for the perseverance through pain, and their souls for the need for harmony.
I cannot remember the last book for which I felt so thankful. I learned of this book when it first came out (2013), which incidentally was at the same time I began rowing in a local community club. I wish I had read it sooner, while I was still rowing. Rowing is not for the faint of heart or for the staunchly independent. It is rigorous and demanding, but it is also beautiful. I sensed that in every shouted command by the coxswain and every muted demand for more by the other oars and by my own oar when we were finally in sync. Some may not appreciate the minutia of rowing that Brown details in the book, but that minutia is in my bones and muscles, and without the minutia, an unknowing reader may assume that rowing is all in the arms or something. It’s not.
The special quality of this book, though, may be the singular voice Brown borrows from George Pocock. Pocock was the leading boat craftsman in America whose own lowly beginnings in England are perfectly in stride with the hardships faced by the winning rowers at Washington. Heading each chapter with an epitaph by Pocock, Brown draws out Pocock’s many elegant metaphors of rowing for life, and Brown gets us as close to learning from Pocock in his workshop or in a boat as he can. The way Pocock cares for his boats is the same care I sense from Brown for the story of the boatsmen. This book isn’t dry history or overwrought, emotional biography. The narrative follows pretty closely the life of one young man, Joe Rantz, who was abandoned in his boyhood and never quite belonged anywhere until he found his way into a racing shell. Yet, even there, he struggled to belong, and he thought the victory of the boat was entirely up to him. Letting go of that burden, surrendering to his team, is the heart of the book. This book is not only a tale of evocative “American can-do-ism,” as the back cover proclaims, but a powerful testimony of friendship, companionship, and teamwork. What sets up as a classic tale of the American Dream becomes a more classic tale of Home.
The most compelling criticism I’ve come across for this book argues that Brown defies the main protagonist Joe Rantz’s request not to make the book about him but about the boat. I could certainly ask for a book about each of these oarsmen and the coaches; Brown gives us enough about them to whet our interest and make the boat feel whole, but there are gaps, and each rower’s story does not just enrich Joe’s story. Their lives have their own intricacies and complexities not fully fleshed out here, and who doesn’t want to read more about how the stroke seat oarsman (the person who sets the pace and power for the entire boat), Don Hume, fought against his own bad health that day in Berlin to win? What Brown does give us, though, is the intimate perspective of how one person’s stroke, and life, affects the strokes, and lives, of others.
The Boys in the Boat is a masterpiece narrative of nonfiction: there is poignant metaphor, but those metaphors are primarily borrowed from the players in the story and so feel organic and not forced; there is historical fact balanced with observation and interpretation; there is family friction and redemption; there is loneliness overcome with belonging; there is triumph of the self and then 'death' of the self for the sake of the team and brighter glory. And just when you think you can basically stop reading because you “know how it ends,” the final 30 or so pages will continue to grip you because, yes, the front cover may give away the ending, but that final race for Olympic Gold was as fraught as all the moments leading up to it.
I'm sure this book is not for everyone, but I think it's for far more people than just history or sports or biography enthusiasts.
You can order the book on Amazon here or check it out at your local library.
*Mackenzie Louise is a return guest blogger and also a master of English literature. She graduated with her M.A. in English at James Madison University this past May. She dreams of retiring some day by a river and owning a whitewater rafting company. In the interim, she plans to pursue her PhD and become an English professor and medievalist. You find her on Twitter @MackenzieLouise, but it's mostly academic retweets and her reactions to Dateline. If you are interested in guest posting, email us at AsToldOverBrunch@gmail.com.