Book Review: Boys in the Boat

I love books.  When my children were small, I had much less time to escape into the pages (virtual or paper) of fiction.  I belonged to a neighborhood book club, but I was probably its least reliable member.  However, now that my nest is emptying out (!!!) I have a little more time and as part of my commitment to myself to do things that give me a sense of joy, I joined a second book club and am back to reading regularly.

Last night my book club discussed the nonfiction book Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, which was universally enjoyed by all of us.  Boys in the Boat is an underdog story about how an unlikely yet compelling team of boys from Seattle, Washington, won Olympic gold in Nazi Germany in 1936.  This was during the Great Depression, and the hardships faced by many of the boys, especially the main protagonist Joe Rantz, are movingly and inspirationally portrayed.

Brown’s vivid descriptions make it possible for modern sensibilities to fathom the grim realities of the Dust Bowl and the poverty experienced by so many Americans.  It was surprising to me how divided the country was about the federal programs intended to relieve suffering and provide work — I had naively supposed that, given the desperate hardship Americans were facing through no fault of their own, public opinion would be nearly universal in support of these programs.   That was not the case.

Brown also delves into the world’s introduction to Nazi Germany through the Olympic Games.  The Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda’s masterful effort to shape the world’s impressions was fascinating and terrifying.  And within Germany, most of the things Hitler and the Nazi government did were packaged to sound reasonable, appealing, and incremental.  It raises the question, how does someone know when they are being subjected to/brainwashed by propaganda?

The theme of hard work and can-do-ism run large in this book.  Joe Rantz especially had a shockingly difficult childhood of abandonment and poverty, and yet he is able to turn this hardship into gold — literally.  He personifies passion and perseverance, and is described as having an almost super-human determination to make something of himself.

I admire that.  I agree that grinding poverty might hone a soul and make it shine bright, but what about the souls whose hopes and dreams and ambitions are crushed and snuffed out because of what they endured.  Does admiring the exceptional person that rises out of grinding poverty mean that we can or should judge those who didn’t do the same?

Many years ago I used to tutor impoverished kids in Hartford, and I really enjoyed those boys, I considered them pretty much the same in terms of energy and mischief and intelligence as the middle class kids I grew up babysitting.  And one day one of my students walked in limping, because he had been knifed by someone in his brother’s rival gang.  And I still remember that sense of bone-chilling fear I had for him, and that sense that he might not make it.

We used this list of discussion questions for our group, and we had an interesting and lively discussion.  If you’d like to read the book yourself, here’s the Amazon link.

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