Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review: The Boys in the Boat - Highly Recommend

I'm not much of a sports enthusiast. I don't follow teams. I don't even really watch the Olympics (although I do remember watching avidly one summer in my teens when the gymnastics teams were especially good-looking and other friends were following their advances, as well). Thus, I really thought I wouldn't be interested in this book, about an Olympic rowing team, at all. Several reliable book critics had recommended it, yet I remained skeptical of my interest level. The thing is, I remember being enthralled by the storytelling of this particular author, Daniel James Brown, when I read his book, Under a Flaming Sky, about a tragic fire in a small Minnesota town. He is a master at setting a scene and bringing historical characters and times to life for the reader. He has done it again, brilliantly, in this book, one of my favorite reads so far this year.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, tells a fascinating tale of the humble, ordinary men who melded together to form a team with the guts, stamina, and drive to overcome obstacles and win an Olympic gold medal. A majority of the book focuses on one individual, Joe Rantz. What a troubled upbringing Rantz endured, losing his mother early in life, gaining a disapproving step-mother, being abandoned by his family, and taking it upon himself to advance to and pay for college at the University of Washington. But it also weaves in the stories of George Yoeman Pocock, builder of the vessels these rowers relied on for the win, and of the coaches who pushed the boys to victory.

I was riveted to the audio version of this book and ended up extending my listening time well past my treadmill time for each CD. With 12 CDs total, it was a lengthy, but captivating story. I was compelled to jot down a few of the quotes because they contained such nuggets of truth:

"It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment. But that very water is what supports you. And that very enemy is your friend. So is life. The very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them." - George Yoeman Pocock

"Where's the spiritual value of rowing? The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole." - George Yoeman Pocock

There was an especially poignant passage on the 7th disc which I couldn't help but take a moment to copy down. Pocock is showing Joe Rantz the various types of wood used in making the shell of the boat. He "talked about the unique properties of each and how it took all of them contributing their individual qualities to make a shell that would come to life in the water." Later, Pocock goes on to speak of the rings in the wood which reveal all the hardships and benefits the tree has experienced. "'The wood', Pocock murmured, 'taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place, something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves, about the reasons we were all here. Sure, I can make a boat,' he said, and then added quoting the poet Joyce Kilmer, 'but only God can make a tree.'"

The author quotes Pocock further: "'The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, to accomodate', he said, 'was sometimes a source of strength in men, as well as in wood, so long as it was helmed by inner resolve and by principle.'" The level of Pocock's commitment was clear. "He said, for him, the craft of building a boat was like a religion. It wasn't enough to master the technical details of it, you had to give yourself up to it spiritually. You had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart. 'Rowing,' he said, 'is like that and a lot of life is like that, too, the parts that really matter anyway.'"

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of this book. I felt like I was standing alongside these young men as they made their way to a sanitized Germany for the 1936 Olympic games. I groaned when they were assigned the very worst possible lane, when their key rower was so sick they thought he might not manage the intense rowing, and when the German crowds cheers drowned out the instructions of the coxswain in the American boat. It was a glorious story, with a victorious ending and so much life-application. Even if you have no interest in athletics or rowing, you will glean something powerful from the experience of reading this book. History comes to life in full-color at the pen of Daniel James Brown.

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