Rating scale: 5=Loved it, 4=Liked it, 3=Ok, 2=Disappointed, 1=Hated it. I look for well developed characters, compelling stories.
Many reviews offer comparisons of this book to Seabiscuit, appropriately so as the themes and narrative tone are remarkably similar. But I also see a strong resemblance to another American Olympic story that happened 4 decades later – our “Miracle on Ice” hockey team of 1980. In both cases global hostilities threatened Olympic boycotts, potentially crushing the once-in-a-lifetime dreams of humble college kids taking on the State subsidized titans of their sports. But the games were held, and against all odds (some of them suspicious in their advantages to the two Fascist teams) the kids rose to the occasion. This is not a spoiler – it’s well known that they win. The real drama is in the story that got them there in the first place. Brown writes that story effectively, developing the social, economic and political context, and fleshing out the characters: Coach Ulbrickson who struggled to find the right team chemistry among his talented rowers, employing crushingly superhuman training standards to ensure top conditioning. There is also shell builder George Pocock, who dispensed Yoda-like wisdom to the boys about the intangible qualities that make up a crew as opposed to a team. And of course the boys in the boat, whose own stories are compelling, especially Joe's, but several others are well highlighted.
Edward Herrmann’s flawless reading is smooth, clear and authoritative, yet also intimate in the telling of the very personal stories of Depression era America and early Third Reich Germany, as teams of rowers approached the race of a lifetime, that to the world was more than just a boat race. And just a side note - you can find video of the race on Youtube.
I never got around to reading this book when it first came out, but did see the movie and have watched it several times. Because the movie was so perfectly casted with Jeff Bridges, Toby Maguire and Chris Cooper, those were the faces I saw in my head as I listened to the scenes familiar from the film. The real delight was in discovering the details that further fleshed out those characters and the story in general – Howard’s compassionate and feisty wife, Smith’s sly tricks to evade the press, the brutal life of virtual indentured servitude jockeys endured to make a dangerous and financially unrewarding living.
The book starts somewhat slowly methodically, introducing the three damaged men and the horse, who all needed to come together to mend each others’ lives. These introductions also laid out necessary information for the reader uninitiated in racing lore to understand the context of the lives in question. For that reason, some readers may feel it moves slowly. But with the foundation laid, the stage is well set for the exciting racing scenes that had me rooting for The Biscuit, sometimes with victory and more often than I had realized with defeat. If there was one weakness, because the excitement of any sporting event depends largely on the visual witnessing of the event, hearing a verbal narration just didn’t convey the tension, danger, and exhilaration that raised my adrenalin, especially for the lesser races. The major races (the Match Race, and the 100 Grander) were exceptions – very exciting and well written. Narration was good, had the tone of a documentary which this really was. Not as deeply moving as Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken”, but that ‘s apples and oranges.