Confession: I haven’t quite finished the book.
But I’ve finished enough to know that I can recommend, without hesitation, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.
An author friend of mine, when I told him I was reading Unbroken (the story of 1936 Olympic runner and World War II veteran Louis Zamperini – read my review here), recommended The Boys in the Boat as my next read. Conrad specifically urged me to listen to the Audible.com version because of the wonderful narration by Edward Herrmann (God rest his soul).
I typically don’t listen to audio when I run outdoors, but lucky for me I was stuck with the treadmill for several weeks because of icy weather and short, dark days. 🙂
This book, and Herrmann’s lovely, fluid reading of it, proves that nonfiction doesn’t have to be dry and boring. A good tale, well told, is like poetry, or music, and this one has been an exciting melodic discovery for me.
While I plod along on the ’mill with the book turned up loud, the minutes sail by. I can practically hear the swish-swoosh-swish of the water as the University of Washington crews practice their craft (and art, and mental game) in hopes of beating their University of California archrivals in the next regatta, or making it to the 1936 Olympics.
I can almost hear the voice of Englishman George Yeoman Pocock, who designed and built the boats our boys rowed in, as he explains to farm boy Joe Rantz how a racing shell takes shape. It’s obvious Pocock had a love affair with his boats, and the materials that went into making them:
“As Pocock talked, Joe grew mesmerized. It wasn’t just what the Englishman was saying, or the soft, earthy cadence of his voice, but the calm reverence with which he talked about the wood – as if there was something holy and sacred about it – that drew Joe in.
“ ‘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.’ ”
Pocock wasn’t the only poet-at-heart. Brown, the book’s author, seems to have taken the topic of rowing and made a master’s thesis out of it, but not the kind that puts you to sleep (unless the thesis is a lullaby). Maybe Brown grew up with the sport; maybe not. However he came to possess the information, he’s an expert on his subject matter, and he makes it come alive, with beautiful and rich description.
We know the boys made it to the Berlin Olympics. We know the things Hitler did as he grew in power. We know who won medals in 1936 and who didn’t. That information is all in the history books.
But when you know the outcome of an event and you’re nevertheless breathless at the telling of it – can’t wait until tomorrow night when you get to read the next installment – well, that’s good storytelling, folks.
You can Google or Wiki the tale of these working-class “boys in the boat” – find out which of them made the team and whether they brought home Olympic gold – but save the cold, hard facts for after Brown has introduced you to his Boys in the Boat.
It’s worth its weight in gold.
Tomorrow: C is for “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” my review of another great book.
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