One of the best books I’ve read this year.
I couldn’t care less about sport and less than that about crewing, but this book isn’t only or even mostly about the sport, it’s about the boys in the boat, and about where they come from. It is also about the physical, mental, emotional and above all spiritual cost of the Depression. It’s about Hitler putting the Olympics to work for him via Leni Riefenstahl. It’s about the class war between USA East and USA West and between the haves and have-nots (shades of the one percent, plus ca change). It’s about working hard for something you want, and then working harder still, and then working harder than that to get it.
But mostly, it’s about the boys in the boat. It’s especially Joe Rantz, who is abandoned by his father not once but twice and has to figure out how to feed himself during the absolute financial nadir of this nation. If that weren’t enough, he has to learn how to endure the slights and sneers of his classmates when he manages to get into UW and they make fun of him for his appearance and his appetite. He was hungry, for crissake. That scene just broke me.
It’s no spoiler to say they go on to triumph (it says so on the cover), but that doesn’t make this book any less of an edge of the seat account of how they do so. Their “swing” is always falling apart, and you’ll feel every one of the two thousand meters during the final sprint for the gold medal. Everything and everyone is against them: the illness of their stroke oar, Don Hume; the official who dropped the start flag where the Americans and the British teams couldn’t see it; the assignment of them both to the worst lanes; even the wind was against them. The guts and the sheer, bloody-minded stubbornness of those boys in pulling to an impossible gold medal inspires awe and not a little bit of shame. When was the last time I worked that hard for anything? Or ever?
The epilogue made me tear up, but it shouldn’t have, because these boys went on to live lives that are the very definition of well-lived. Most of them wound up working at Boeing, and I bet I’ve ridden on many of the aircraft they helped design and build. And the team stayed close friends until their deaths. Those boys in that boat? Are the collective definition of the American dream.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.