It began as a breezy summer read.
A couple of months ago, I picked up The Boys in the Boat, the best-selling book by Daniel James Brown, a true account of how nine working class boys from the University of Washington took on the Ivy League rowing world, not only winning the national collegiate crew championship, but capturing the gold medal at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
It’s a classic underdog story: A group of “nobodies,” the sons of loggers and fishermen and farmers from the Pacific Northwest, struggling through the Great Depression–sometimes, literally looking for their next meal–who come together to achieve an astronomically improbable victory. It is the other story of the so-called Nazi Olympics, the better known one that of Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals under the baleful glare of der Führer.
The story of these boys is simply a masterfully spun tale, and the fact that you know the ending from the outset is no spoiler, for the real suspense is how it all unfolds. And just in time for this year’s summer games in Rio, PBS recently premiered “The Boys of ’36,” a well crafted hour-long documentary–part of its American Experience series, which you can now watch online.
In the months since I finished the book, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the deeper themes of Brown’s story, particularly amid this tumultuous summer of terrorist attacks, gun violence and bitter partisan divisions. As Brown himself has pointed out, the larger significance of The Boys in the Boat is that the story reminds us of who we are as Americans.
Yes, we value extraordinary individual achievements, fairness and equality, as exemplified by Jesse Owens’ iconic feat. But we’re also a nation defined by great teams, and that is the story of these boys. We are often at our best, Brown notes, “when we come together, when we literally all get in the boat together and pull as one.”
But building great teams–especially in fragile shells gliding across sometimes rough waters–is not easy. “I think trust is the single-most important thing in rowing,” Brown says. “Every time you take a stroke, you are counting on everybody else in the boat to be putting his whole weight–full strength–into that stroke. That is only going happen if every man in that boat trusts the others on a very fundamental level.”
In the end, Brown suggests that the desire of each boy in the boat to become something larger than himself is really a metaphor for their entire generation: It is how the Greatest Generation became the Greatest Generation.
So where we are today, in our frayed and fractured America?
I encourage you to read two articles we recently posted on Roel Resources: “Finding Calm within America’s Demographic Storm,” by my website partner, Ken Taub, and Janine diGiovanni’s, “Are We Going to Have to Save Each Other?” Each essay explores a distinctly different issue: Ken, the national anxiety over our changing demographic complexion; and Janine, the challenge of confronting the constant threat of terrorism, in whatever country you call home.
But both pieces lead us to the same conclusion: That we’re in this together; we’re all in the same boat. And if we’re willing to risk trusting each other, we will someday find ways to reach heights much greater than each of us could achieve alone.