Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

To defeat an adversary who was your equal, maybe even your superior, it wasn't necessarily enough to just give your all from start to finish.  You had to master your opponent mentally.  When the critical moment in a close race was upon you, you had to know something he did not---that down in your core you still had something in reserve, something you had not yet shown, something that once revealed would make him doubt himself, make him falter just when it counted the most.  Like so much in life, crew was partly about confidence, partly about knowing your own heart.

Daniel James Brown's book describes the journey of the U.S. Olympic rowing eight that won gold in 1936.  Brown weaves an incredible, moving tale, juggling the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, the California-Washington rivalry, the east coast and west coast rivalry, and, perhaps most importantly, the stories of the individual rowers themselves.

The frame story focuses on Joe Rantz, starting with his childhood.  Brown writes about how Rantz is abandoned by his family; how in response, Rantz learned to become self-sufficient; how Rantz joined the rowing team because he needed it to guarantee a campus job.  This self-sufficiency becomes a problem for Rantz because of the essence of rowing, which requires complete and utter dependence upon your crewmates, captured in this moment between the boat-builder-resident-philosopher, George Pocock, and Rantz:
Pocock pased and stepped back from the frame of the shell and put his hands on hips, carefully studying the work he had so far done.  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; 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.  He turned to Joe.  "Rowing," he said, "is like that.  And a lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway.  Do you know what I mean, Joe?"  Joe, a bit nervous, not at all certain that he did, nodded tentatively, went back downstairs, and resumed his sit-ups, trying to work it out.
 Pocock makes numerous appearances throughout the book.  Each chapter starts with a quotation from Pocock, capturing the essence of rowing.  This is something that makes the book more pleasurable, but also something that makes the book special for rowers.  Pocock's quotations capture the truths of rowing in a way I have felt but never been able to put into words.  And it's not just Pocock's words.  Brown's writing also puts into words something I've always believed about rowing: that it is a uniquely special sport.  That it teaches cooperation and mutual-dependence in a way unlike other sports---that is, successful rowing requires cooperation of the purest form. Pocock puts it this way: "Where is the spiritual value of rowing? . . . The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole."

Perhaps because these days we've been inundated with sports-underdog-political implication movies, one would think that another story, with only the sport to distinguish it, would fall flat.  This book does not.  Brown's interweaving narrative captures rowing while still carrying the symbolic importance of the boat's victory.  This is not a small feat, and Brown's writing deserves a lot of credit.

But then, so does the story.  It is a moving story of nine young men who come together to row.

Highly recommended, especially for anyone with rowing experience.

1 comment:

billy said...

This was a good review, but I wish it had more quotes about children getting murdered by nazis