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On the Boys in the Boat

David Brooks (“The Next Culture War” NYT, June 30), noted that Christianity is rapidly declining or being eliminated. Brooks’ phrase for what is left – “social conservative” – is unfortunate. As Chesterton saw over a century ago, such people “left over” will be the only “heretics” left. They alone will affirm that the grass is green (marriage is marriage) but not, like our voluntarist perception of reality, whatever we choose to call it: “The sexual revolution will not be undone anytime soon. The more practical struggle is to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving, and inhospitable.” This admonition sounds uncannily like Pope Francis.

After Brooks, I finished Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, an account of eight crewmen who won the Gold Medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In the “Author’s Note,” Brown wrote: “Finally, this is, in many ways, a book about a young man’s long journey back to a place he calls home; writing his story has reminded me again and again that no one is more blessed by his home than I am.” Brown has a wife and two daughters.

This is not a “review” of this excellent book. A book club in Maryland wants everyone in that state to read it. Good advice. This book, however you look at it, is quite counter-cultural. I hesitate to point this fact out, lest someone hesitate to read it.

Brown pays particular attention to the home life of Joe Rantz, the book’s hero, and to the other boys in the boat, as well as to what happens to them down to their deaths. All but one marry, have children, homes, memories. The book depended on the recollections of Rantz’s daughter. This book is about men, good young men, who, like most tourists, may drink too much beer in Germany on their first visit. Yet, in many ways, the book is about wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers, none of whom row. This book understands marriage, its relation to the sexes, to children, to fathers and mothers. The relationships can sometimes be agonizing, but no doubt is left about what they ought to be.

An Englishman by the name of George Pocock is the philosophic protagonist of the book. Each chapter begins with a remark of Pocock’s about the majesty of rowing. Pocock builds the finest cedar eight-man sculls. He is also a major figure at the University of Washington crew headquarters where he builds and sells his boats. The drama of the book deals with Joe Rantz, a leading oarsmen on the crew. His family life was disrupted by the death of his mother and his father’s remarriage, from which Joe has four half brothers and sisters. His talented stepmother and father in effect abandon him as a boy.

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In analyzing Joe’s psychology, his fitting into the team, Pocock figures out what is bothering Joe. It is his troubled relation with his father, who, like Joe, is dirt poor. The following passage is central to the book:

It helped that Pocock’s own mother had died six months after his birth. His father’s second wife had died a few years later, before George’s remembering. He knew something about growing up in a motherless home, and about the hole it left in a boy’s heart. He knew about the ceaseless drive to make oneself whole and about the endless yearning. Slowly he began to close on the essence of Joe Rantz.

What kind of strange doctrine do we have here? A boy needs a mother, his mother?

Joe Rantz had one girl friend in his youth. He married her the day both of them graduated from the University of Washington. Joe’s wife Joyce, who had a hand in bring up his own half-siblings, was a devoted wife. This is how Brown describes her:

Over the years, Joe and Joyce raised five children – Fred, Judy, Jerry, Barb, and Jenny. In all these years, Joyce never forgot what Joe had gone through in his early years, and she never wavered from a vow she had made to herself early in their relationship: come what may, she would make sure that he never went through anything like it again, would never again be abandoned, would always have a warm and loving home.

Joyce died before Joe. In his old age and death, Joe is looked after by his children.

“The next culture war?” Man, wife, fidelity, vows, work, children, home, glory – these are the things we have been destroying, the things that men and women, boys and girls, want most, if they want anything at all, except for this one thing. Why, Chesterton asked, are we “home-sick at home?” If “the boys in the boat” teach us anything, it is that to be what we are, we must know, in experience or in hope, what a home is – father, mother, their children. Transcendence passes through the home.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019)

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019)

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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