This month’s reviews both have young men who came from different backgrounds, grew up in different decades, and faced obstacles that would define who they would become as adults.
The Boys in the Boat (2015) by David James Brown is a good old American tale of working hard towards accomplishing a goal. The goal set before them happens to be bringing home a gold medal from the 1936 Olympics.
For many people theirs is an unknown story, unless you are a fan of the Olympics, crew style racing, or history. Reading this book, you will not only meet and get to know the boys in the boat, but also their coaches, a lot about crew racing, and the history of the era.
Allow me to introduce the nine boys. I will start with Joe Rantz because he is the center of this wonderful story. Joe experienced a sad childhood. With no family, abandoned to make it on his own at a very young age, he sees being part of the racing team as his doorway to remaining in college.
Next is Gordy Adam. Big, quiet. His job was to hold down the middle spot on the boat. He was a dairy farm kid who attended a two-room school near the Canadian border. He spent five months of the year fishing in the Bering Sea to earn money to pay for school.
The first of Joe’s friends at college was Roger Morris. Tall and a gangly 6’3”, Roger majored in engineering. He also worked hard to pay for college. Roger had had some rowing experience before he come to college. In fact, he was one of the few freshmen who had any experience.
Chuck Day and Joe got to know each other, not at college, but at Grand Coulee one summer. The both were working there to pay for their college classes. Chuck was pure muscle with broad shoulders. He was a fierce competitor and did not know the meaning of surrender.
Bobby Moch, at 5’7” and weighing in at 119#, he was perfect size for the position of coxswain. He was a quick thinker and a strategist. And, he was nobody’s fool. He called cadence and knew how to inspire the rowers.
George “Shorty” Hunt sat behind Joe and let Joe know, “I got your back!” He was indispensable. High-strung like a race horse. Maybe that was because he grew up around horses. Shorty was a superstar in high school, good looking, and well dressed.
Jim “Stub” McMillin was very similar to Joe. He worked as a janitor in the shell house to earn is money for school. At 6’5” he provided the leverage power the middle of the boat. Always rowed hard with huge powerful strokes. The boys likened Stub to the “Engine Room” of the boat.
Johnny White worked at the Grand Coulee during the summers as he too came from a poor family. He had the looks of an All-American boy. Graduated high school two years early and worked those years to grow physically and to earn money. Johnny learned to row from his father.
Don Hume held the position of Stroke which is very important to the team since he sets the stroke count for the race. He was big and powerful. Unfortunately, he becomes ill. The team went to bat for him and begged the coach to keep him.
You have learned a little about the nine faces of that 1936 team. But others played major parts in order to win that gold medal. Their coach, Al Ulbrickson, George Pocock, who built the boat, and of course the boat itself, Husky Clipper.
Please read The Boys in the Boat. It is excellent. I am not a big nonfiction reader. This book is so readable and at times a real page turner at least for me, especially that gold medal race. You do not have to know a thing about rowing to enjoy reading it.
You might checkout the PBS documentary and/or the movie version. Then read The Boys in the Boat to see what you have missed.
The Nickel Boys (2019) by Colson Whitehead is a fictitious account based on a very real reform school and real boys. The reform school operated for 111 years right here in Florida! Yes, for 111 years!
This book is only about 200 pages long, but I sure would not call it an easy read. The subject matter is quite weighty and the tale it tells is not pleasant. It opens in present day when archaeology students from University of South Florida discover unmarked graves in a cemetery known to the boys as Boot Hill.
Two boys you will get to know through the pages of this book are Elwood and Turner. These two young men crossed paths at Nickle Academy where they would receive “physical, intellectual, and moral training” to become “honorable and honest men”. How did they end up at Nickle? One took a ride, the other, could have been for any reason.
Elwood is a high school senior who earned top grades. With those grades he was offered the opportunity to attend college with free tuition. Elwood had been raised by his grandmother, Harriet. She did a great job of seeing to it Elwood attended school, did not allow him to listen to popular music of the day, and there was no tv in the house.
But, the one album he did listen to was a recording of MLK at Zion Hall. And listen he did, over and over. Elwood took to heart that he was…”as good as anyone.”
Turner is the other boy. Turner reacts differently to situations than Elwood. He is just as smart as El, but sees the world from a different point of view.
Nowadays we would call him a survivalist or streetwise, the opposite of Elwood. He does what it takes to get through life. He watches, he thinks, and he plans his course of action. He is a good kid stuck in a bad place.
For instance, he wanted some time off from his assigned work at Nickle. To get that time off he ate some soap powder. Sure, it gave him a bad stomach ache, but it also gave him a couple days in the hospital away from daily life at Nickle. Yes, Turner was the key to Elwood’s survival at Nickle.
Elwood and Turner met on El’s second day at Nickle. It might just have been the best thing to happen to each of them. Their friendship bloomed along with each other’s trust. Trust was not easy to come by at Nickle.
Turner recommended El for a job where they would work together. That job, Community Service, was the pickup and delivery of goods intended for the school but those good often did not always arrive there.
What it did do was allow Elwood and Turner time outside the gate. That time was also spent watching, thinking, and planning. “The key to it in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act. And then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course. If you want to walk out of here.”
Since this is a fictional account, the names, places, and locations have been changed. If you watched the news in the recent past, it is possible you might recognize the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.
I have seen this book described as brutal, raw, shocking. You will get no argument from me because it is. But it is so much more. It recalls a very ugly time in our history and will leave you thinking. Take some time and google Dozier School for Boys.