Book review: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their epic quest for Gold in the 1936 Olympics by Daniel James Brown
Like narrative non-fiction such as Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand, or biographical World War Two fiction? If so, you will find The Boys in the Boat an intriguing read.
Most of us alive today can’t remember that time. Poverty was rampant, despair only a mealtime away and ominous shadows of World War Two stretched across the sea, threatening catastrophe for yet another generation of young men.
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s the West Coast of the U.S. was mostly wild, untamed forests of massive cedars and unspoiled waters. Shrouded in mist and rain, rugged men chopped, sawed, dug and fished their living from forest, mountain and sea. Here we find young Joe Rantz. It is the worst of times and his childhood circumstances are heartbreaking. After abandonment by his stepmother and father, his early life is spent scrabbling out a living any which way he can. All the while he warily guards his fragile inner self from further pain.
Rowing to the Olympics
When the opportunity for competitive rowing presents itself, Joe seizes it. He throws himself into the intense and consuming competition of the popular sport. Along with similarly determined young men, he has much to learn, not only about rowing, but about himself.
The elite Ivy league rowers of the East soon discover they can’t hold an oar to these young Washington upstarts. What these lumberjacks, fishermen and subsistence farmers lack in refinement, they make up for in strength, endurance and grit. Their secret weapon coxswain, Bobby Moch doesn’t hurt either, upsetting the rowing “establishment” with their record breaking times.
But the path to glory is rarely straight. Coach Ulbrickson struggles to determine the perfect combination of rowers for his varsity team. Joe is an enigma to him. His heart has yet to follow his mind and muscle into the rowing shell and bond with his teammates. But the risk of seating Joe pays off, both for Ulbrickson, Joe and the rest of the team.
1936 Berlin Olympics
As the boys romp around Berlin between Olympic trials and workouts, Brown guides the reader behind the curtain of Hitler and Goebbel’s carefully crafted illusions. The world stage of the 1936 Olympics is a grand deception; a charade designed to impress the world and distract it from the ugliness of the Nazi regime. Their stunning efforts are successful, especially for naïve young athletes visiting Germany for the first time.
Coach Ulbrickson already has plenty to prove with his Washington boys, for their country and now the whole world. Winning is also personal for Pocock. He lovingly crafted each racing shell and encouraged the team to excellence along the way. When it becomes evident that Germany blatantly gives itself and its allies every advantage, in order to take gold in their rowing event, Ulbrickson has no idea how the U.S. team can pull off a win or even a respectable placement. To top that off, one of his rowers takes ill. Given the situation, a fiction writer could hardly make up worse odds and Brown has woven the facts so the reader truly wonders what will happen.
The Other Boys in the Boat
Part way through the book, I wondered about the other “boys in the boat.” Their similar hard-luck stories are briefly alluded to, but compared to Joe, they don’t get much coverage. Towards the end, I realised this was not a shortcoming on the part of the author, but more a reality of the story. Spoiler: Joe is one of the last men left alive to tell this tale when Brown began his research. This highlights how important it is to get stories down, before they perish with those who lived them. It is no mistake or failing in the telling that Joe’s journey from a hungry, lonely child to a man with purpose, love and lifelong friends, forms a wonderful arc for this real life account of the “Boys in the Boat.”
Brown’s telling glows with insight, compassion and intelligence, making this narrative non-fiction read like a novel. One can’t help but feel for the boys in the boat, especially Joe—the pain and breathlessness as they row, the exhilaration and thrill of their wins and their commitment to each other.
Is there a movie in the making? I certainly hope so!