Rowing tale deserves a medal
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.