Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Boys in the Boat -- Daniel James Brown

I don't read a great deal of non-fiction. I don't say that to imply that it's a good thing, and it tends to happen that when I do read a work of such it works out that I end up really enjoying whatever it was I chose. Maybe that's simply a function of how discriminating I am when I do venture into the room at the store where the true stuff lives.

I'm happy to report that, although I was late to this particular party, I'm no less enthusiastic about The Boys in the Boat than I would have been if I'd been the one to discover it straight away. One of the dirty little secrets of bookselling is that we read a whole lot about books, and sometimes that is the only basis we have for recommending them to our customers. We can't read everything, sad to say. I knew this one had all the right stuff, just based on early reviews and a few paragraphs here and there that I scanned during quiet times at the shop. More than one person to whom I recommended it highly made a point of tracking me down (at the grocery, at church, etc.) to tell me how very right I had gotten it.

I decided to make it my first read of 2015. I started it a few days before the turn of the calendar, but don't let how long it took me to finish it dissuade you. There was more than one reason that everything slowed down for me as December turned to January, and it took some doing to stay interested in anything. I credit Brown and the remarkable story of achievement in the face of tremendous odds against success for pulling me back to this tale every day.

The Boys in the Boat tells the story of an improbable group of working class young men who rowed for the University of Washington, and who set about to become part of the US Rowing Team for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In order to do so, they had to knock off East Coast teams that were considered to have a lock on the sport by dint of tradition. The uphill battle that was paled in comparison to what would face them in Germany. The stakes could not have been much higher, but this group of American sports heroes seemed to thrive on the idea of impossibility.

There is much to learn here about the Nazi propaganda machine, and the role the Olympics played in advancing Hitler's plans. Brown does a wonderful job of juxtaposing the hard work the men of Washington were putting in to their dreams with the devastatingly remarkable job the Nazis were doing of making the world see only what they wanted the world to see.

I'm sorry it took me so long to read this book, but you know what I always say: every book you've not yet read is a new book.