From the beginning, Joe Rantz—the apparent hero of this year’s One Maryland One Book—is dogged by bad luck. One Maryland One Book is the program of the Maryland Humanities Council in which people all across the state read the same book at the same time. Joe’s earliest memory is of watching his mother cough blood into a handkerchief. By the time he is 15, she has died, the Depression has struck, and his father has remarried a woman who doesn’t like Joe. Returning home from school one day, he finds the car out in front of the house, packed as if for a trip. His father explains that the family is heading west to look for work and, at his wife’s insistence, they are leaving Joe behind.
But despite this abandonment, despite the fact Joe must now feed and clothe himself at the height of the Depression, within four years he will save up enough money to enter the University of Washington and, eventually, join its fabled rowing team. Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat” is the immensely stirring, immensely satisfying story of this crew of boys from the wrong side of the tracks who, in 1936, in Joseph Goebbels’ swastika-bedecked Berlin, surprised the world in general and Adolf Hitler in particular by taking gold in the Olympics.
From the team’s giant oarsman, Stub McMillin, whose height will make him ineligible for the armed forces in World War II, to the diminutive coxswain, Bobby Moch, who will discover shortly before travelling to Berlin that he is actually Jewish, “The Boys in the Boat” is chock-a-block with appealing characters. But in truth, the real hero of the story may well be the sport, the art, of rowing itself.
To be a successful eight-man crew, as Brown points out, “Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action—each subtle turning of wrists—must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other.” To succeed, in other words, these eight young men, in some ways more than in any other sport, must work as a team if they are to produce the physical poetry that is a racing shell skimming over the water. In an evocation of the era’s music, the boys call the rhythmic grace they achieve when, finally, they manage to row in perfect unison like this … “swing.” Brown writes, “the boys, their oars, and the Husky Clipper looked like a single thing, gracefully and powerfully coiling and uncoiling itself, propelling itself forward over the surface of the water.”
In the 1930s, at the height of the Depression, rather like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, these eight young men gave the nation something to cheer about. And now, in 2015, they’re giving the people of Maryland something to cheer about as well. On Monday, September 21, at 6:30 p.m., in the Easton library, and again on Wednesday, September 23, at 3:00 p.m., in the St. Michaels branch, I will be hosting a discussion of this year’s One Maryland One Book. Won’t you join me?
Bill Peak writes a monthly article for The Star-Democrat about working at the Talbot County Free Library. This essay was originally published in The Star-Democrat on August 2, 2015.