One of the best books I’ve read this year.
I could care less about sport and less than that about crewing, but this book made me care in a way I never have before, because it isn’t about the sport, it’s about the boys in the boat, and about where they come from, and about the physical, mental, emotional and above all spiritual cost of the Depression, and about the rise of Hitler, and about the class war between USA East and USA West, and about working hard for something you want and then working harder and again harder for it.
But mostly, it’s about the boys in the boat, 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, and 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.
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 is against them, the illness of their stroke oar, Don Hume, the official who dropped the start flag where the Americans and the British 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, and they all stayed close friends until their deaths. Those boys in that boat? Are the collective definition of the American dream.