Two of the books I read this summer made me simultaneously feel a bit better and a lot worse about current events. Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927, and Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, both brought to life a fascinating period in history.
What amazed me about Bryson’s book was how dismal a picture he paints of government and society while also detailing the incredible strength of the human spirit. Some of the greatest names of that day, such as Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth and Henry Ford were deeply flawed, yet we still benefit from their achievements. There were immigrants to America who contributed immensely to our country and others who sought to destroy her. The media frequently focused on the wrong things, contributing to an uneducated and foolish citizenry. In other words, their times were somewhat like ours, including inept and corrupt government and civil unrest.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, chronicles the University of Washington crew team in the early 1930’s, It intimately follows one member of the University of Washington crew team, while also introducing us to the other protagonists including boat builders and coaches. The main character, pretty much on his own from the tender age of ten, made a man of himself and went on to a long and successful marriage and life. The almost unlimited capabilities of human spirit shine from each page of the book while the competition is as excitingly portrayed as last year’s Super Bowl (Go Hawks!).
Important questions shimmer beneath the surface of the book as well. I gathered that the author believes that America granted both a moral and public relations victory to Hitler by attending the 1936 Olympics in Munich. At the same time, he makes clear how devastating it would be to individual athletes who train and struggle for years to be Olympians, were participation in the games to be cancelled.
Drawn into the lives of ‘the boys in the boat,’ we desperately wish that their competition (and the victory of black runner Jesse Owens) were a thumb in Hitler’s eye. Yet, as is true today, ephemeral gestures feel good for a few days but they are not an effective way to combat evil. Had American and her European allies recognized Hitler’s threat earlier, the boys’ disappointment would have been minimal compared to the pain and suffering of millions that occurred because the world did not respond forcefully early on. Their dream tugs at our hearts, but in retrospect, it does not weigh more heavily than the dreams of thousands of American soldiers who a few years later went to war instead of school, to graves instead of marriages, to rehabilitation centers instead of athletic fields. Winston Churchill called World War II the “unnecessary war,” feeling that it could have been avoided with timely resolve.
Today, once again, America and her allies are refusing to recognize the severity of the threat against us. Neville Chamberlain’s blind optimism is more common than Churchill’s prescience. We feel present pain not future possibility. Both these books reminded me that history is cyclical. How wonderful it would be not to repeat the old mistakes.
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