Wednesday, June 24, 2015

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown

One thing I don’t like about non-fiction is that I often know the outcome.  Still, I loved the character portraits in this book, particularly that of its underdog main character, Joe Rantz.  Repeatedly thrown out of the house by his stepmother during the Depression, Joe had to live by his wits, as he struggled just to survive.  Finally, during his senior year of high school, his older brother invited him to come live with his family until graduation.  Joe’s athletic prowess caught the attention of University of Washington rowing coach Al Ulbrickson.  As one of many tall and muscular freshmen vying for a place on the rowing team, Joe had no experience whatsoever, but then neither did any of his competitors.  Constantly ridiculed for his impoverished wardrobe, Joe battled his insecurities and fear of abandonment while learning to rely on the other men in the boat.  The eight men on the team eventually forged a synergy that would serve them well when competing against the Ivy League schools in the East and their arch rival, the University of California Berkeley.  My favorite character in the book is George Pocock, the venerated boatbuilder who learned his trade in England, immigrated to North America, and eventually became the supplier of sculls to most of the top rowing teams in the country.  His gorgeous sculls were works of art, and his words of wisdom, for rowing and for life in general, appear at the beginning of every chapter.  Joe credited Pocock with helping him develop the mental attitude that turned around his rowing career.  Every good story needs some sort of adversity for the characters to overcome.  In this case, not only did Joe overcome the misfortune of his family circumstances, but the rowing team battled wind, rain, currents, frigid temperatures, and illness in a sport that looks almost effortless when the rowers are in “the swing.”  However, the author makes us feel how punishing the sport really is, especially when the coxswain asks for 10 big ones—10 mammoth strokes to try to catch up to and overtake an opponent.  These guys gave all they had and then reached deep into their souls to give some more.

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