Rowing tale deserves a medal

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

Brown adds spark to this pre­dictable tra­jec­tory by in­clud­ing plenty of his­tor­i­cal de­tail to give us a feel for the pe­riod be­yond the gru­elling train­ing of the rowing team.

It might be tough to imag­ine to­day, but in the 1930s rowing was as big a part of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture as base­ball or football are to­day, and the 1936 Olympic gold team mem­bers were treated like heroes upon their re­turn home.

Brown is a writer of his­tor­i­cal non-fic­tion who lives out­side of Seat­tle. His fa­mil­iar­ity with the at­mo­spheric land­scape of the Pa­cific North­west and in­ter­est in Seat­tle’s his­tory — in­clud­ing its con­nec­tions to Bri­tish Columbia — are ob­vi­ous. In his two pre­vi­ous books, he delved into lit­tle-known tales of as­ton­ish­ing sur­vival against the odds in 19th-cen­tury Amer­ica. Sim­i­lar themes emerge here as he re­counts how a group of out­siders suc­ceeds in beat­ing elite national and in­ter­na­tional crews through de­ter­mi­na­tion and ded­i­ca­tion.

The story be­gins well be­fore 1936 and, like the rowing crew it­self, works be­cause it unites in­di­vid­u­als into a col­lec­tive. Brown had ac­cess to one of the last sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the crew, Joe Rantz, whose daugh­ter aided with the re­search.

Joe be­comes the main fo­cus, as we fol­low his dream of over­com­ing parental aban­don­ment and poverty to earn a place on the fresh­men crew. The other main fig­ures are the bril­liant yet tac­i­turn coach Al Ul­brick­son, nick­named the “dour Dane,” and the philo­soph­i­cal Bri­tish boat builder Ge­orge Po­cock, whose mus­ings on the sport ap­pear in epi- graphs to each chap­ter.

So­cial class is a theme that dom­i­nates all lev­els of the story. The team it­self is im­pov­er­ished com­pared with those from the Ivy League eastern uni­ver­si­ties.

When told they must pay their own way to Ber­lin to rep­re­sent the U.S., there are no wealthy par­ents or spon­sors to step in and the dream seems over.

Brown re­counts in a mov­ing pas­sage the mas­sive fundrais­ing ef­fort by the cit­i­zens of Seat­tle that pulled to­gether the $5,000 needed for the jour­ney.

Brown in­ter­cuts the more tra­di­tional sports story with de­scrip­tions of Seat­tle when it was still con­sid­ered a re­mote out­post, the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of the dust storms and heat waves of the early 1930s, the build­ing of the Grand Coulee Dam (three of the boys signed up for danger­ous sum­mer jobs there to pay their next year’s tuition), the craft of hand-build­ing cedar rac­ing shells, the physics and biome­chan­ics of rowing, and var­i­ous Nazi machi­na­tions.

Al­though Brown does tend to­ward some clichéd lan­guage and ex­ces­sive mys­ti­cism about rowing and the brother­hood of the crew, his deft weav­ing of the in­di­vid­ual and team sto­ries and the sus­pense­ful de­scrip­tions of the races makes for an in­for­ma­tive, and at times, thrilling read.

Win­nipeg poet and fic­tion writer Sarah Klassen has won an award for her 2012 po­etry col­lec­tion, Mon­strance (Turn­stone Press), ac­knowl­edg­ing the way her work dis­cov­ers the sa­cred in the world around us.

The award was pre­sented by the Word Guild, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that hon­ours writ­ers for works in a va­ri­ety of gen­res and me­dia that come from a Chris­tian per­spec­tive.

The Calgary Pub­lic Li­brary is hold­ing a one-day event to­day called 20,000 Books Un­der the Bow to sup­port re­build­ing of its col­lec­tion and re­pairs to the main down­town branch fol­low­ing the mas­sive June flood.

Cal­gar­i­ans are be­ing asked to drop off “gen­tly used” books, CDs and DVDs, which will be sold to raise money for the li­brary. T-shirts are also on sale to sup­port re­build­ing.

Book lovers are also ral­ly­ing to sup­port li­braries de­stroyed by fire. The French- and English-lan­guage book pub­lish­ing as­so­ci­a­tions in Que­bec sup­port the re­build­ing of the Lac-Mé­gan­tic Pub­lic Li­brary, which was in­cin­er­ated along with 60,000 books and a col­lec­tion of rare archival ma­te­rial in the July 6 oil fire. Af­ter an ap­par­ent ar­son de­stroyed the li­brary in Bella Bella, B.C., on July 12 a re­build­ing cam­paign has be­gun there as well.

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