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Monday, November 2, 2015

Take and Read: The Boys in the Boat

If you haven't read it yet, get it, and read it now: The Boys in the Boat: Nine American and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics. It's the story about the University of Washington eight-oared rowing team that represented the U.S. in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

And it's one heck of a great story. One learns, for instance, that in the 1930s, rowing was one of the nation's most popular sports with millions following the Olympic race on the radio (75,000 people attended the race in Berlin). One also learns about one of the boat's rowers, Joe Rantz, who was abandoned by his family at an early age and forced to fend for himself. It tells how he survived, paid for his way through school, met and married the girl of his dreams, and how rowing helped him regain his sense of self and trust of others. One also learns a bit about the art of rowing: in particular, about the importance of the rowers finding their "swing," and the strategic role that the coxswain plays in the pace of the boat. Finally, one learns about how for the games Hitler and the Nazis into an adult playground for the games, hiding all evidence of their terrible treatment of Jews, gypsies, gays and lesbians, and Jehovah Witnesses.

But most of all, one learns about the nine boys in the boat, who (as the book's website notes) were
The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers from the American West, the boys took on and defeated successive echelons of privilege and power... Against the grim backdrop of the Great Depression, they reaffirmed the American notion that merit, in the end, outweighs birthright. They reminded the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together. And they provided hope that in the titanic struggle that lay just ahead, the ruthless might of the Nazis would not prevail over American grit, determination, and optimism.
You don't need to be a rowing fan (I'm not) to be riveted by the tale. I listened to the audio version (read by the actor, Edward Herrmann, who is excellent), and the miles flew by. The retelling of the final race in Berlin, as well as the National college championship race a couple of months before, are hard to put down (or in my case, turn off). I can't recommend the book enough. If I hadn't read it already, I'd put it on my Christmas list. You should put it on yours.

Note: The Weinstein Company has acquired the film rights to the story, and the actor and director Kenneth Branagh is set to direct it. I hope it's good. In fact, I hope it's great because it's a great story. Still, I'm skeptical that the movie can capture all that went on in the minds of the rowers (and their coaches).

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