“The Boys in the Boat” (2014) doesn’t tick many boxes on my “what I look for in a book” list, but several friends recommended that I read Daniel James Brown’s New York Times bestseller , so I decided to give it a try.
“The Boys in the Boat” is now one of my five favorite books of all time.
At the heart of the story is Joe Rantz, a young man with whom at first I thought I had absolutely nothing in common. Other than at Girl Scout camp, I’ve never rowed a boat. My family of four – dad, mom, my sister and I – were the type to sit down together for dinner most nights of the week. In contrast, Joe was a college and Olympic rower. His mother died when he was 4 years old; at the age of 10, he was banished by his stepmother from the family home to live alone at school and earn his living by chopping wood; he was later allowed to return home, but when he was 15 and in the midst of the Great Depression, his father, stepmother and step-siblings moved out, leaving him to live in a partially completed rural house and stay alive.
But as I got to know him throughout the book, I realized there was an essential part of Joe that I could relate to. As a child and throughout my teenage years, I also lacked self-confidence and felt like an outsider in most settings. And like Joe, I eventually discovered that even those around me who seemed very sure of their own abilities and their place in the world around them at least occasionally battled feelings of unworthiness and non-belonging.
Because of that, not only can we all sympathize with Joe Rantz, but we ache for him when his teammates make fun of his ratty old sweater and his love of country music. And we feel immense pride in him as he overcomes one obstacle after another, falls in love with a woman who cherishes him back, proves himself in the Husky Clipper, and ultimately triumphs over the ideals of Hitler and the party. Nazi on the world stage. .
Some readers may feel that the storyline gets bogged down in descriptions of boat building and the effects of weather on rowing. But these details, along with the subplots of Nazi activities leading up to the 1936 Olympics and the rivalry between college rowing teams and their coaches, weave together to create the tapestry of a story that humbles and inspires the reader. .
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Even those who thought their days of competitive athletics were behind them may, like me, find themselves googling “Missouri Senior Games” at moseniorgames.org or joining a local pickleball team at semissourian.com/story/2954009.html. Those into other pursuits may feel the need to join the local community theater group called the River City Players, or take a workshop at the Southeast Missouri Arts Council.
Whatever our interests and whatever our skill level, the story of Joe Rantz and his eight teammates has the power to make us dream again, step out of our comfort zone, and live life to the fullest.
Want to join the conversation?
Join us in our Facebook Live discussion of “The Boys in the Boat” on The Best Years Facebook page, in The Best Books Club Facebook group at 10:30 a.m. on August 24, or join us in person at The Best Years Active Living Expo, in the workshop area of the Century Casino Cape Girardeau. Here are some things we will discuss:
What are the differences, if any, between how the Olympics were viewed in the 1930s and how they are viewed today?
What do you think of Avery Brundage and his role within the Olympic Committee?
Bobby Moch was Jewish. Knowing what he knew about Germany, are you surprised he went there? would you be gone? Why didn’t his father tell him sooner?
Which relationship do you think ended up being the most crucial for Joe?
What do you think was the turning point for Joe to become a unit with the rest of the boys in the boat?
Our September pick is a book that, for lack of a better word, haunted me long after I finished it. I have recommended it to many people of different ages, backgrounds and reading interests; time after time they share that after reading it they felt the same and now recommend it to other people.
Chris Whitaker’s “We Begin at the End” is hard to describe; you have to read it to understand it. I’ll warn you, the language is more adult in nature than previous selections – it involves swearing, including the “f” word. But this gripping book will get you thinking about concepts like family; personal choices and destiny; and the concepts of fairness, morality, freedom, and what makes a good person good.