A Most Beautiful Thing
The July 2020 pub of this book could not have been better timed. After weeks of national protests, the conscience of the US is grappling with issues of systemic racism and white privilege. Books on these topics are being rushed into print, some being reissued. There are wonderful ones among them, informative ones, enlightening ones. Others of them preach.
This one does not. It is one man’s story of escaping the mean streets of Chicago in the 1990s by joining the very first all-black high school rowing team. The memoirist is Arshay Cooper, and he has grown up with gang violence and police abuse. His mother went through a period of drug addiction, during which she stole from her own kids, and his father was never in the picture.
Enter a boat. It appears one day at the high school, with promises of travel, Michael Jordan sneakers, and help in college admissions. Arshay isn’t good enough at other sports to compete, and he has dreams of being a professional chef. He figures rowing might give him a shot.
A MOST BEAUTIFUL THING is gritty. Arshay Cooper isn’t a professional writer trying to describe the inner city. He is describing his own life, showing what happens as it happens, rather than telling it from afar. He is insightful and articulate. Granted, writing this memoir thirty years later, he has the benefit of hindsight. But he’s earned that right.
As a writer who is also a woman, do I want to hear more about the girls who came out to row? Yes. Did I occasionally wish Mr. Cooper’s style was smoother? Yes. But neither of those is the point. This is a memoir. The author wrote about what he knew best, and his very succinctness gives the book authenticity.
At the start, I was on the outside, reading about something I’d never experienced. Little by little, thanks to the author’s persistence, I was drawn in by the characters, the struggle, the grittiness of those voices, until I felt part of their world. By the end, I was listening with heart-thumping focus.
Mr. Cooper illustrates systemic racism by showing its effect. In that, this book is head and shoulders above the rest. The themes of fighting against often-insurmountable obstacles, of retaining your identity even as you outgrow it, of ultimately taking responsibility not only for yourself but for your family and friends, are crucial.
This is as important a book as I’ve read in a while.