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The Crossing tells the colorful story of Matthew Webb, the first person to swim across the English Channel. Webb was born in 1848, learned to swim as a boy in the River Severn, and joined the merchant marine, where he received a medal for bravery for diving after a seaman who had fallen into the Atlantic. A natural showman, he gained sponsors for what was considered an impossible feat, to swim from Dover to Calais. The author, editor of Women's Realm magazine, skillfully recreates the physical agony of Webb's crossing and his triumphant return as he sailed into Dover to the wild applause of crowds jammed on the pier. His exploit made Webb famous and gave the new sport of swimming an enormous boost. Newspapers described him as "probably the best-known and most popular man in the world" and his achievement "a matter of national importance." As his fame faded, however, Webb tried to keep himself in the public eye with a series of dubious public appearances, such as spending 60 hours in a glass tank at the Royal Westminster Aquarium, exploits that gradually ruined his health. Finally, for $10,000 he attempted to swim across the Niagara rapids and was crushed in the whirlpool below the falls. The author sympathetically places Webb's descent from national hero to desperate promoter in the context of the Victorian quest for novelty and the bizarre. Besides being the well-written biography of an eccentric daredevil, The Crossing is a fascinating piece of social history. --John Stevenson
London journalist Watson delivers a sensitive, well-wrought account of the life of Matthew Webb, a 27-year-old British merchant seaman who in 1875 became the first person to swim the English Channel making it from Dover to Calais in under 22 hours, a feat not duplicated for 36 years. Fueled by frequent servings of coffee, beer and brandy, suffering from a jellyfish sting, Webb traversed the icy, "frighteningly unpredictable" 21-mile Channel by overcoming tides so strong that he actually swam over 40 miles. Watson details Webb's early life, his status as "probably the best known and most popular man in the world" after his deed, his tragic fall from grace and his death at age 35 while swimming below Niagara Falls. Watson deftly contextualizes this obscure sporting figure: "His crossing gave swimming an enormous boost, transforming it almost overnight into one of the most popular participant sports in the country"; government-supported swimming baths proliferated and still thrive today. Watson carefully recounts the increasingly exploitative Victorian popular culture in which Webb's popularity yielded to new fads; he had to resort to less-than-professional "championship" races and cheap stunts to support his family. A Channel swimmer herself, Watson understands that the crossing "is never less than a rite of passage in the swimmer's life" and that history "has remembered Webb only in isolated flashes, but his real and lasting monument surely lies in the spirit of all the men and women who, since his crossing, have tried to swim the channel." (Sept.)Forecast: Expect a big push for this book the sales representatives chose it from among Penguin/Putnam's imprints' lists as this season's nonfiction "pick of the list."
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