Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Review: "Before the Wind" by Jim Lynch

"Families split over money, betrayal and abuse, over resentments, infidelities and misunderstandings, over people being jackasses. Most anything can rattle the fault lines. Yet I know of only one family torn asunder by a sailboat race."

Joshua Johannssen has sailing in his blood. It's virtually all he and his siblings have known basically since birth. His grandfather designed sailboats, his father designed and raced them, and the two passed down this fever to Josh, his older brother Bernard, and their younger sister Ruby, a true sailing prodigy. They knew sailing terms and how to race boats in every weather condition better than they knew the English language or how to relax with any other pastime. Even their scientist mother plays a role, teaching them about the disbursement of air and water molecules, and how to measure the wind.

But something happened and everything changed. Josh, now 31, lives on a boat and repairs boats at a marina not far from his childhood home in Washington State. The family sailboat business has hit hard times and faces bankruptcy after too many lawsuits caused by their father's cutting corners. Their mother is becoming obsessed with solving a series of scientific equations that promise a significant monetary reward. And both his siblings have fled far away, Ruby to Africa, where she helps care for the poor and sick, and Bernard to who-knows-where, as he has become a fugitive and a champion of the working class.

"...strains of this gentle madness course through my family the way diabetes or alcoholism clusters in others. For years, sailing bound us. We were racers, builders and cruisers. It was our family business, our sport, our drug of choice. Yet eventually, sailing blew us apart, too."

It is Swiftsure, a famed sailing race, that brings the entire Johannssen clan together for one last hurrah. Sailing an old family boat altered by Josh (following his father's orders) to allow it to compete with the newer, faster crafts, their father hopes that this will be the moment that repairs all of the damage done through the years (although he's not quick to acknowledge his role in all of that damage), and restores the Johannssen name, reputation, and business. But the entire family is unprepared for what occurs, and the revelations that are revealed.

Jim Lynch may be one of the best writers you might never have heard of, and Before the Wind is a pretty terrific book. Lynch again returns to his beloved Pacific Northwest, and has created an utterly compelling portrait of a dysfunctional family both brought together and torn apart by their mutual obsession with sailing. This is beautifully written, emotionally gripping, humorous, and insightful.

I have one caveat for you: Before the Wind goes heavy on sailing terms. You may not know spinnaker from starboard, or boom from boat, but in the end, this is a story about a family, and you can guess what most of the terms mean. The book starts a little slowly, but much like a sailboat, it picks up speed and emotion and heft, until you're completely immersed. While I'd recommend any and all of Lynch's books, this is a great one to start with. I loved this.

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