The Boys in the Boat

1936-team-on-waterThe Boys in the Boat consumed me while I consumed it. I blew dry my thick mop on the low setting so I could read more of it each morning. For a two week stretch I managed to work the book into every casual conversation.

In short, the book is about rowing, about the University of Washington crew who took the gold at the 1936 OIympics. Daniel James Brown tells the story with skill, weaving the personal and team history of the crew, the craft of boat building, the Nazi propaganda guru, Leni Riefenstahl, together in so spell-binding a way that, even though you know the outcome of the final race, you have to turn the page to find out.

Certain elements of the story were bound to draw me in: Nazi Germany, a motherless child, boating, work ethic, craftsmanship, athleticism. But what captured me the most was the harmony, the heartfelt cooperation, required between the boys in the boat. If you don’t like some fellow in the boat, Joe, you have to learn to like him. The combination of humility and confidence, requisite to a good crew, fascinated me. My husband has built and rowed several duck hunting scull boats in his time. By default (and by interest—his nightly question is ‘what are you reading?’) Curt gets the first feedback from my reading. But there was no way I could simply tell him about the chapter on the art of boat building. I read it aloud and reveled in his comments and appreciation.

Reading in the age of YouTube means that the scenes recreated on page are available to watch on a screen. This short book trailer shows the stunning end of the Olympic finals. (I’m glad that I saw this after I read the book; knowing the back story helped me appreciate the significance that is hard to grasp in the few seconds of the footage.) What a thrill!

As I read I bumped into “old friends”: The Suzzallo Library, Grand Coulee Dam, Fritz Kreisler(how does a world-class violinist get into a book on crew?), Louis Zamperini of Unbroken fame, and Hugh Laurie. Yeah, that Hugh Laurie! If you loved Unbroken, odds are you will like The Boys in the Boat.

It’s called “swing.” It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action—each subtle turning of wrists—must be mirrored exactly by each oarsmen, from one end of the boat to the other.  160