I’m taking a quick break from novellas coverage but keeping up the nonfiction focus with this week’s Nonfiction November prompt, “Stranger than Fiction,” hosted by Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks: “This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that almost don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.” I would also interpret this brief to refer to nonfiction that reads as fluently as a novel, and on both counts this book stands out.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown (2013)
We read this for my book club a couple of months ago, on the recommendation of one of our members’ spouses. I was dubious because I don’t read history books, and don’t enjoy playing or watching sports, so a sport + history book sounded like a real snoozefest, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Brown focuses on one of the University of Washington rowers, Joe Rantz, in effect making him the protagonist of a classic underdog story. The college team in general, and Rantz in particular, were unlikely champions. Rantz lost his mother young and, abandoned by his father multiple times, had to make a living by his wits in the Seattle area, sometimes resorting to illegal schemes like poaching and selling liquor during Prohibition, but also logging and working in dam construction. Even among the teammates who became his de facto family, he was bullied for coming from poverty and for his enthusiasm for folksy music. That we come to know and care deeply for Rantz testifies to how well Brown recreates his life story – largely via Rantz’s daughter’s reminiscences, though Brown did meet Rantz before his death.
Another central character is world-renowned boat designer George Pocock, an Englishman who set up shop on the Washington campus. Boatbuilding and rowing both come across as admirable skills involving hard physical labour, scientific precision and an artist’s mind. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading about the technical details of woodworking and rowing. Brown emphasizes the psychological as well as the physical challenges of rowing – “mind in boat” is a catchphrase reminding rowers to give their total attention for there to be harmony between teammates. Individual talent is only useful insomuch as it boosts collective performance, and there has to be a perfect balance between speed, power and technique. Often, it means going past the pain barrier: “Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment,” as the author sums it up.
(After reading the book, some of us went on a fieldtrip to see the boating club where the woman who recommended the book rows as an amateur. It wasn’t until I saw the rowers out on the Thames that I realized that only the coxswain – the one who sits at the back of the boat and calls out the orders – faces forward, while all the other rowers are facing backwards. That feels metaphorically significant, like you have to trust where the journey is taking you all together rather than relying on your own sight.)
All along, Brown subtly weaves in the historical background: Depression-era Seattle with its shantytowns, and the rise of Hitler in Germany. Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl were key propagandists, whitewashing the city in advance of the Olympics to make a good impression on foreign visitors. Some atrocities had already been committed, and purification policies were in place, yet the Nazis fooled many with a façade of efficiency and cleanliness.
I have deep admiration for books, fiction or non-, that can maintain suspense even though you know the outcome. The pacing really works here. Most of the action is pre-Berlin, which keeps the tension high. (The only times when my attention waned was in the blow-by-blow accounts of preliminary races.) There were so many mishaps associated with the Olympic race that it truly is amazing that the U.S. team pulled through to win – I’ll leave the specifics for future readers to discover. But there are a couple ‘stranger than fiction’ details of the book that I do want to pull out: Joe’s father and brother each married one sister from a set of twins; and actor Hugh Laurie’s father was on the Great Britain rowing team at the 1936 Olympics.
The fires and heatwave of 1936 felt familiar, as did the hairstyles and fashions in the black-and-white photos (but the ‘boys’ themselves look more like 35-year-olds than modern college students). In some ways it seemed that little has changed, but then other facts feel impossibly outdated – e.g., sperm whale oil was used to oil the boats.
This might seem like a ‘dad book’ – indeed, several of us passed the book on to our fathers/-in-law after reading – but in fact it has very broad appeal and is one I’d be likely to recommend to any big readers, even if they’re not keen on nonfiction. It’s one of my most memorable reads of the year so far. And whether you fancy reading the book or not, you may want to look out for the George Clooney-directed film, coming out next year. (Secondhand purchase)
Jane Smiley’s “The Last Hundred Years” trilogy is a saga prioritizing the experiences of the Langdons, an Iowa farming family, over the century beginning in 1920. In chronological chapters, one per year from 1920 to the near future of 2019, Smiley follows an ordinary couple, their six children and several generations of their descendants as they navigate America’s social changes and re-evaluate their principles during decades of upheaval.
Here’s an excerpt from my Shiny New Books review in early 2015: “Farming, unpredictable and frequently heartbreaking, is an appropriate framework for an all-American story. Aspects of the Great American Novel are certainly on display: immigrant roots, coming-of-age trajectories for individuals and the nation, and American dream scenarios of reinvention. Within the confines of its third-person omniscient point-of-view, the novel shifts between the perspectives of each main character, especially the children. Smiley avoids a gimmicky One Day effect by varying the time of year so most chapters highlight different events, birthdays or holidays. Droughts, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and McCarthyism all feature, while the start of the Cold War – including paranoia over the Russians getting the bomb – sets up the second volume.”
Some months ago it occurred to me that I never followed up with the Langdons. Although I don’t generally read sequels or series, I nonetheless made it a priority to find the other two volumes of the trilogy from the library.
The second book covers 1953 to 1986. The family loses one member to Vietnam, one to cancer, and one to the easiest, simplest death you could imagine. There’s a shotgun wedding, a divorce, and several affairs. In short, it feels like a real family, like your family. Events seem arbitrary at the time but later take on the cast of inevitability. Historical landmarks are there as background information, not as clichéd points of action (a good example is the JFK assassination). The Vietnam War threads through the middle section, but isn’t overpowering. The connections with history are pretty subtle here. One of my favorites is when Janet, at a Vietnam protest march, suddenly realizes she’s behind Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Spock. Her later involvement with the Peoples Temple grew tiresome for me, but I appreciated the ironic eye on the future: in 1980, “Well, I guess, they invaded Afghanistan…wherever that is!”
Iowa was still my preferred setting, an ideal site for pondering time’s workings and how money comes and goes: Joe “knew enough at his age to know that dollars were like drops of mist – they fluttered around you and then dissipated.” I also like Andy’s therapy sessions, frequently featured in the first half. There’s even a gentle mystery in this book: a boy who doesn’t seem to be related to the family keeps showing up, but by the end we figure out who he is.
People may rise and fall in importance, just as they do in real life, but everyone has a perspective. That’s part of Smiley’s message here, I think. Early on she observes that Rosanna “hadn’t thought of Roland Frederick as having a point of view.” Recognizing other people as valid subjects, overcoming solipsism, is really what literature is all about.
Although I’m interested in what happens next, I don’t like the grandchildren generation all that much; Richie and Michael are especially unpleasant, and I have a feeling they will be major players in Golden Age. Still, I feel invested in and close to this family, so I’m going to see it through to the end.
Joe’s dystopian vision: “But he could see it, looking south – he could see all the layers lift off – the roof of the house, the second floor, the first floor. He could see the children and Jesse and Jenny and Lois and Minnie being lifted out on a fountain of debt and scattered to the winds; then he could see the corn and beans scoured away, and the topsoil, once twelve inches thick, now six inches thick, and below that, the silty clay loam, more gray than black, then the subsoil, brownish clay all the way down, down, down to the yellow layer, mostly, again, clay, all of it exposed, all of it flying into the atmosphere like money, burning up in the hot sunshine, disappearing.”
Alas, the final installment was my least favorite. There are a few reasons for this. One is simply that I didn’t like the third- and fourth-generation characters as much. Another is that, with such a large family tree, you get more lists of names and catch-up sessions. The intrusion of history is also more overt. I noted this in the 2011 chapter, especially, which mentions the Japanese earthquake, Utøya and the Occupy movement. One character dies on 9/11; another gets a flesh-eating bacteria. One is struck by lightning; another dies in a hit and run. Not only are several of the deaths unrealistic, but, true to the winding-down spirit, there are simply a lot of them.
As people disperse and the second generation starts to die off, the bonds between the family members weaken. The Iowa farm diminishes in real-life and symbolic importance compared to the action on the coasts: California, New York and Washington, where Richie is a congressman. I might actually have preferred if Smiley had imagined an alternative history for the 2000s and 2010s. (Of course, that would have broken the mold she made for herself.) For me, it all felt too close. I had a sense of her picking easy targets: “I would like to thank the members of the U.S. Congress for being so easy to satirize,” she writes in her acknowledgments. There’s also too much horse material – a frequent indulgence for Smiley.
The last five or so chapters were speculative at the time Smiley was writing, and some of her predictions already seem a little silly, like violent protests against a Harper government in Vancouver in 2016. However, her environmental worries are right on, and her words about the 2012 presidential election seem prescient in relation to this year’s race: a character advises his family to vote Democrat “as a protest against the Republican Party for offering a roster of candidates that went from bad to worse to worst ever.”
Ultimately, my favorite overall character was Andy, who reinvented herself as a young woman and does so again as a widow, turning into a computer and investment whiz. Frank was an early favorite in Some Luck, where he reminded me a lot of Mad Men’s Don Draper, but I grew less enamored with him over the years. Henry was perhaps my second favorite in the previous two books, but he rather fades into the background in the final book.
My advice to anyone wondering whether they should read this trilogy would be to start with Some Luck and, if you really like it, proceed to Early Warning. Golden Age is largely unnecessary and can be reserved for die-hard Smiley fans or series completists.
Further reading: Literary Hub article, “Why Wasn’t Great American Novelist Jane Smiley on the Cover of a Magazine?”