You may recall I gave myself a list of reading challenges for 2014. They are all self-imposed and they all just randomly fell out of my brain one day in a burst of inspiration. Whether this is the first you’re hearing of my reading resolutions or you just want to review, here is the list of my reading inspirations:
- Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
- Read an award-winning book
- (see below)
- Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
- Read an annotated classic work of literature
- Read an entire series that is new to me
Up until now I thought of this list as only a clever way for me to have some ready-made books to blog about. However, I really didn’t expect anything mind-blowing to result. Then I decided to tackle number five, the super-popular designation. And guys, I finished reading this book three weeks ago. Three weeks ago. I have been unable to pick up another book since. This book broke me. I am stuck in a rut, afraid to pick up another book because it’s really not fair to that book to have to follow behind one so good as this one.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or just not in the Pacific Northwest, everyone has been buzzing about The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. The library first bought the book last June and I don’t think we’ve ever been successful at keeping a single copy on the shelf. As of this writing there are still twenty-two outstanding holds across all formats. I was lucky enough to snag an eBook copy. Pro tip: if you need a popular book quickly, the holds queues for eBooks tend to be far shorter than physical print copies.
So there I was: sitting curled up on the couch, Saturday morning, fresh-brewed coffee in hand. This was back before that big summer heat wave hit Seattle. It was just me and the title screen on my Kindle. I had no idea what was about to happen, how truly involved in this story I would become. I ended up creating countless highlights in my eBook of passages I thought embodied a person, idea, or event. I didn’t count on how difficult it would be to retrieve said highlights later. So you’ll have to keep with me as I try to put into words how incredibly magnificent this book was, and still is.
Joe Rantz was born in Spokane in 1914. His childhood and early adulthood are detailed throughout the book, juxtaposed with great inventions of the time, and a healthy dose of local, federal, and world history. His father invented as a hobby, but it was never enough to pay the bills. When Joe was still quite young his mother died. His father, heartbroken and searching for work, moved all over the Northwest. Sometimes he took Joe; sometimes he left Joe behind; sometimes he shipped Joe out to a relative’s house. As a result, Joe had a severely unstable childhood but also became extremely self-reliant. Being left behind in a half-built house in the wilderness outside of Sequim, while your father packs up his new family and leaves for parts unknown will do that to you.
By the time he got to the University of Washington in 1933, Joe was always second-guessing his worth. Despite working hard, and during the Great Depression no less, to not only scrape together tuition money but also find a place to live, Joe never really saw his strengths. Joe was used to hard work, but he thought he would finally feel like he fit in with like-minded people in college. Instead his threadbare clothes and deep poverty made him feel like an outcast from the very start of his college career.
Eventually, Joe managed to work his way onto the UW crew team. Despite his aptitude, dedication, and stamina, he saw that his place on the team was not permanent and never guaranteed. Coaches swapped students around on different boats, trying to find the right combination of rowers. This boat-swapping, coupled with his childhood of abandonment put Joe constantly on edge, fearful that he would be let go from the team just when he was starting to feel at home. Knowing that staying on the crew team was his only chance to stay in college, and have a shot at a good future, Joe was constantly worried but always striving to be better.
Over his freshman and sophomore years, his boat had its ups and downs in competitions and teammate personality conflicts. But it wasn’t until his junior year that his teammates became as close as family. In 1932 UW’s west coast rowing rivals, UC “Cal” Berkeley, had won Olympic gold. Entering the 1935 rowing season, everyone at both UW and Cal knew that their coach would be pushing them to fight for the chance at the gold medal at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. And any team competing against Germany on their home turf during an oppressive time would, if they could win it…well, do I need to go on?
The Dust Bowl. Nazis. The Great Depression. Hitler’s rise to power. All of this is set against our group of farm boys, working hard on the waters of Lake Washington. This is a true underdog story, one made more inspirational because every word of it is true. Pay special attention to the quotes from George Yeoman Pocock at the start of each chapter. He handcrafted all the racing shells at UW during Joe’s tenure, and he was wise beyond his years. I would love to read more about him and his equally humble beginnings and incredible life.
I really did not think I would like The Boys in the Boat, but was curious how a book about rowing could become so popular. I told my dentist I was going to read this book. He, an avid fisherman and happiest, I suspect, when he’s on the open water, said that it was also on his list to read this summer. I feel like I did us both proud. Look at me, reading a book about sports! But it’s so much more than that. If you, too, decide to give it a chance, prepare to be swept away at forty-five strokes per minute. Now that I’ve written this review I hope it releases me from the spell cast by Daniel James Brown. I’m going to crack open a new book tonight and test my theory.