Book Review: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Every  now and then a book hits home and changes a little part of who I am.  This was one of them.  I love reading about the 1930s and 40s.  I love stories of hope, courage, dedication and triumph over all impossible odds.  And I love learning about WWII.  Put that all together and you have one of my favorite books. I don't know if this book can compare much with Unbroken.  That book is in a class by itself.  But Louie Zamperini is mentioned, and it's all taking place during the same time period, so there are some parallels.  Without giving away too much, I just want to share with you why this book drew me in and kept me inspired.

For starters, I guess it's the stark contrast between today's entitlement mentality and the make-your-own-way spirit of the Greatest Generation.  I mean, this kid, Joe, was repeatedly abandoned by his family in one form or another starting at age four when he first knew illness, death and fear..  He also knew poverty. Real poverty.  Not the kind of poverty that means you get free lunch at school.  The kind that drives you to the forest looking for mushrooms to eat, or to the salmon spawning grounds to illegally hunt fish.  He knew lonliness; the kind of lonliness that comes when you are intentionally left behind by your father and step mother at age 15 to fend for yourself in an empty, half-finished homestead.  He knew loss. He knew a motherless childhood.   He knew what it felt like to have his interests and talents mocked and ridiculed by his peers and family.

If Joe had decided to turn in on himself, to hermit away in pain; or if he'd chosen to lash out in anger at the world...you'd understand, right?  I mean, he had every reason, every excuse to turn into a rotten kid.  But Joe was made of better stuff.  Stuff that I hope to find in myself  Stuff like a willingness to work incredibly hard for the sake of survival.  An ability to find value in things that others disregard as useless or unuseable.  An optimism for the future even when the past only suggests more sorrow.  Reliance on self, creativity, resourcefulness.  A talent for finding peace and hope in simple things like music, nature, and a friendly face.  Joe had all of this and a good deal more.

Joe carried these things forward as he managed to somehow scrape enough money together to go to college.  Slaving away in the summer under grueling manual labor and working nights as a janitor at the YMCA, where he also had a cell-like sleeping room, allowed Joe to pay his own way through school at the University of Washington, where he tried out for the rowing team.

Rowing turned out to be a saving grace for Joe in many ways. The learning curve wasn't a predictable and steady upward line for Joe.  He was all over the charts.  First slipping back and then inching forward, making progess and then losing ground just like most of us do in so many areas of our lives. He still ended up with a gold medal.  And the analogies there are many. I saw myself in that cycle of one step forward, two steps back.

But let me quote a few passages for you that had special meaning for my own life.  These are passages that not only apply to very real circumstances that  I face myself, but to an entire "gimme" generation that seems to think the world owes them every desire of their hearts simply because they "occupy" space and time on earth.

The following quotes are from chapter ten.

"The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it.  And yet at the same time-And this is key-no other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does.....they have no stars.  The team effort-the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water; teh single, whole unified, and beautiful symphoney that a crew in motion becomes-is all that matters.  Not the individual, not the self."

"Crew races are not won by clones. They are won by crews...Each must be prepared to compromise something in the way of optimizing his stroke for the overall benefit of the boat...."

"Good crews are good blends of personalities: someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in resesrve,; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking.  Somehow all this must mesh.  That's the steepest challenge.  Even after the right mixture is foudn, each man or woman in the boat must recognize his or her ploace in the fabric of the crew, accept it, and accept the others as they are.  It is an exuisite thing when it all comes together in just the righ way.  The intense bonding and the sense of exhileration that results from it are what many oarsmen row for, far more than for tropheies or accolades.  But it takes  young men or women of extraordinary character....to pull it off."

I feel like entire sermons could be written on those quotes.  It reminds me of the scriptures about the Body of Christ.  All parts are needed in one way or another to create a whole.  This can be applied in so many ways outisde of sports.  Think of your marriage, of your family, of your church group, your homeschool co-op, your work environment or your other organziatoin.  Think how abandoning yourself to the greater good, giving up something that might make YOU standout, make YOU feel better, so that the group as a whole can thrive.  It's hard!!  (Side note: I'm not talking about socialism here. I'm mtalking about voluntary teamwork.)

Let me share one more passage from chapter thirteen.

"There was a straightforward reason for what was happening.  The boys in the Clipper had been winnowed down by punishing competition, and in the winnowing a kind of common character had issued forth; they were all skilled, they were all tough, they were all fiercely determined, but they were also all good-hearted.  Every one of them had come from humble origins or been humbled by the ravages of the hard times in which they had grown up.  Each had in his own way, they had all learnead that nothing could be taken for granted in life, that for all their strenght and good looks and youth, forces were at work in the world that were greater than they.  The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility-the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole-and humility was the common gateway through which they were able to now come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before."

It reminds me of that saying that goes, "It's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit."  Somethign like that.  And did you catch the definition of humility in there?  I love that.  I think it works.  And how did this humility come about?  By being winnowed down.  By experiencing hardship and difficulty.  NOT by having an easy life.

And I love that for all the toughness and skill, what really mattered for these boys' success was their character, their good hearts.  I've heard it said that America is Great because America is Good.  When America stops being Good, America stops being Great.  This book brings that saying to life in a very personal, individual, and every-day way.  

Good people, working hard, doing their best, loving and living, struggling and learning.  Good people overcoming hardship and difficulty.  Good people dreaming big and living small.  Good people relying on God, themselves and each other.  Good people living the best life they can.  I think this is what characterizes that Greatest Generation and makes me yearn for a time when young people cared more about being good than living comfortably.  

I hope that a little bit of  Joe has rubbed off on me after reading this book and I can focus more on being a humble, dedicated, hardworking team player that is Good to the core.

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