Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat is not subtitled “Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” for nothing. I had already planned to read this on the recommendation of some fellow teachers when my book club also decided to pick it up. I wasn’t quite finished with it when we had our book club meeting about it, but I finished it this afternoon.
The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the University of Washington’s varsity crew team, working class men, the “sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers” who achieved the impossible and rowed their way all the way to the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Meanwhile, in a side storyline, the Nazis see the Olympics as an opportunity to show their superiority to the world, and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl are hard at work putting Berlin’s best face forward to the world in an effort to deflect attention from the Nazis’ true plans, at least for a few more years.
I need to explain that I am not an athlete. I don’t know anything about crew, except that it’s on a boat (which I now know is called a shell), and I couldn’t have possibly been less interested in a book about crew before I picked this up. The fact that Brown was able not only to interest and educate a reader like me and make me invest in this book is a huge accomplishment. I suspect people with a passion for crew would love this book even more. The heart of this book is in the nine young men in the Husky Clipper, and especially in Joe Rantz. I connected to his background because like Joe Rantz, my grandfather came from Spokane, Washington and had a complicated and fraught childhood which in many ways resembled Rantz’s own experiences. The race scenes are riveting, and even though the outcomes are a matter of historic record, Brown still manages to write on the very edge of his seat, and the outcome seems uncertain and even bleak. Brown captures the special nature of the relationship these young men had—their sense of camaraderie, their friendship, the way they worked together as one unit. Not having been an athlete, I can only compare it to being a member of a band. Some of the moments Brown describes as everything looks certain to be lost remind me of one time in particular when we were playing at a Festival competition, and things looked like they were about to go off the rails. The music was coming unglued, and our band director turned beet red. His eyes bulged. He was sweating. He looked frantic. Then all of a sudden, the music clapped back together again, and it sounded brilliant. As a matter of fact, it sounded better as it was about to fall apart and came back together than it would have sounded if we’d kept it together the whole time. It’s a moment I have never forgotten because it involved such tight teamwork, much like the rowing descriptions in Brown’s book.
I have to admit I shed a few tears at the end of the book. All of the men who won that gold medal race have passed on. In the epilogue, Brown describes the various roles they played in World War II and their lives afterward, which included gatherings with family, culminating in rowing at least until 1986, the 50th anniversary of their stunning victory in the Olympics. Brown has a true heart for his subject, and he will persuade you to fall in love with these men, too—from scrappy coxswain Bobby Moch to coach Al Ulbrickson (a man of few works and scant praise) to George Pocock, boat-builder and crew guru. In fact, this book would make a brilliant and inspiring movie. I’m sure Hollywood is already on that. Truthfully, though, it has all the elements of fantastic drama and managed to keep me biting my nails even though I knew the outcome. The story is gripping. A fantastic read.