Reviewed by Judy Levin. Lately I’ve been finding some of my most rewarding reading to be non-fiction books. I remember the days when non-fiction meant stuffy, tedious, fact-filled books that felt more like textbooks than the stories I loved to read. There still are these types of non-fiction books, of course, but gratefully, there are more authors who have tried writing non-fiction more as a story than a report.
Daniel James Brown (not to be confused with Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code series) brings us The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Like Unbroken, the story Laura Hillenbrand told so well about Louis Zamperini and his incredible experiences, this is a tale of spirit, resilience, honor and character. Zamperini even makes a cameo appearance in this book since he was on the same ocean liner with these boys and all the athletes traveling to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics.
Brown anchors his story on Joe Rantz, one of the nine heroic boys on the rowing team. He meets Joe when Joe’s daughter invites Brown to come meet her Dad who is ill and living out his last days in the same Seattle community where Brown is living. Feeling honored to have met one of the “boys in the boat,” Brown sets out to write Joe’s story, but Joe insists the book must be about the team, not just about him. Joe’s personal struggle began when his mother died when he was four years old, he was shipped off to unknown relatives, sent back, and subjected to a life of abandonment. His father’s second wife is carved right out of the evil Disney stepmother mold, and by his early teens, Joe was living on his own, finding food, shelter and sustenance through his wit and determination, and mentors and role models wherever he could.
Joe’s endurance to even make it to college is legendary. Taking place during the depression and the hardscrabble life of the northwest in the early 20th century, we begin to understand where the words “the greatest generation” got their genesis.
When Joe tries out for the rowing team at The University of Washington, he is not so much interested in sports, competition, the Olympics nor heroism; he is hoping to get a spot on the team that will ensure him a part-time job that then will help pay his tuition to remain in school. Quite a far cry from the way today’s athletic scholarships work for collegiate athletes.
Once Joe makes the freshman rowing team, Brown regales us with the details of the sport – from the physics of rowing technique to the mental exertion and the coaching finesse of positioning each rower to the perfecting of the shell itself. Each boy in the boat, the coaches, and especially the boat builder, George Pocock, loom large and significant in this story of perseverance, skill and trust.
Brown does a fine job of showing us Hitler’s Berlin of 1936, painting a vivid picture of the theater atmosphere created by Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, and master cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl. At the time this team of nine boys from the University of Washington arrive in Berlin, the world is hearing about the persecution of Jews, arrests of dissidents and detractors, but not yet paying full attention. We watch the Olympics from “the boys” viewpoint, knowing that within a few years, some of them will be serving in WWII.
This is no “spoiler-alert” to tell you that the team wins the gold. What I won’t tell you is how surprising their win actually is once you read about the odds they face. Read it with your blood racing, heart pounding and a look of incredulity on your face that turns into a great sigh of relief, pride and infusion of oxygen! Then you can watch the race on YouTube video created from filming done by Riefenstahl and her team in 1936.
You may wonder why you did not already know this story about a group of ordinary yet extraordinary boys, mostly sons of loggers, farmers and fishermen who triumphed first over the sons of elite east coast ivy league school trained crew teams, and then overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles in Berlin to win the gold.
When you are finished with this book you will be able to answer that question, but most of all you will be gratified to have read their story and to carry it forward now that “the boys” are no longer here to tell the tale. By the time Brown began interviewing Joe Rantz, few of the original nine were still alive, and by the time he finished the book and it went to publication, none remained. The families of these nine men supported Brown’s efforts and helped him with interviews, photos, stories and memorabilia along with the official documents from the University of Washington and newspaper and other historical documents. Many people now travel to the University to visit the shell house where “the boat” hangs in victory and memory of this stupendous achievement.