All of us here at the Wenches are avid readers year round, but summer, with its long days and laid-back pace, always seems a good time to make inroads on the TBR pile. So I’ve been sneaking in a little extra reading time. And though we do a regular “What Are We Reading” feature here, I thought I’d share a particularly wonderful book I just finished.
Every so often, I get together with two college pals for lunch, and as one of them is head of non-fiction at Viking and the other a long-time editor at the New York Times, you can imagine that—surprise, surprise!—we talk a lot about books. Now, I always ask my friend at Viking what the most exciting manuscript is on her desk. (it’s fun to get a heads-up on an upcoming release.) Well, this past winter, her eyes lit up and she said that she had something really special coming out in summer.
So, when The Boys In The Boat hit the shelves in June, I immediately snatched up a copy. As the Wench “jock” I had a natural affinity for the subject matter—it’s the story of the U.S. 8-oar crew team that won the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But wait! Those of you who aren’t particularly interested in sports shouldn’t drift away here. It’s not really about athletes and athletics. It’s about heroes and all the things that really matter in life.
Now, when we Regency authors write heroes, we dress them in elegant breeches and boots, we give them fancy titles and set them in the glittering mansions of Mayfair. But strip away the trappings and what we really do is create men of honor and integrity, men who are steadfast and loyal, who see the bonds of friendship as more important than their own personal desires. In a word, they have heart, and their own inner strength, even in the face of daunting adversity, gives them the courage to believe in themselves. And of course, love is an integral part of the story.
The “boys in the boat” weren’t aristocrats. They were hardscrabble, hardworking, mostly dirt-poor kids from the Pacific Northwest who wanted to better themselves by going to college. Somehow they cobbled together enough money to do so—some of the stories of their childhood will bring tears to your eyes—and in one of those wonderful confluences of fate that usually happens only in fiction, they came together with the legendary rowing coach of the University of Washington and a philosopher/boatbuilder who never finished grade school but could quote Shakespeare and Milton as he build exquisitely beautiful racing shells in the drafty old former WWI airplane hanger that served as the university’s boathouse.
The story that followed is a romance if ever there was one, an epic quest that like all romances has a happily-ever-after. The boys endured brutal workouts, physical pain, and sneering prejudice from the elite eastern universities who thought the yokels from the primitive west couldn’t possibly compete at a gentlemen’s sport. (College crew was far bigger than college football in those days—the big regattas drew huge crowds of spectators, were front page news on all the major newspapers, and the individual races were broadcast nationwide over the radio.)
But compete they did. And proved their mettle by winning the national championship and the Olympic trials, which earned them the right to represent the U.S. at the 1936 Games. You learn in the book that rowing is all about teamwork. Every minute motion must be in synch, and no one individual can carry the boat. Rhythm, sweat, willpower, trust in each other—it all must flow perfectly for the boat to fly over the water. And when it does, it’s poetry in motion.
I won’t recount the plot, but it’s a really wonderful read, especially as it interweaves fascinating portraits of America during the Depression and the rise of the Nazis in Germany into the story of the boys becoming a world-class crew team. The culmination, of course, is the race in Berlin (you can see a vintage film clip of the actual race here) which transcended sport in its subtext. Hitler and his minions were hoping to send a message to the world about Aryan invincibility by winning as many events as possible. The U. S. team, highlighted by the brilliant performances of track star Jesse Owens and the boys from Washington, stood out as a beacon of light for the rest of the world.
So what about you? What qualities are most important for you in a hero? And do you have a personal unsung hero?