15 Sep / The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
So you know how the book ends by the second paragraph in the “Prologue.” But holy moly, once you start, you’ll want to experience every detail of how the eponymous boys in the boat – “nine young men from the state of Washington – farm boys, fisherman, and loggers – … shocked both the rowing world and Adolf Hitler by winning the gold medal in eight-oared rowing at the 1936 Olympics.” Don’t let this Boat pass you by!
I fully admit that I would never have read Daniel James Brown’s third and mega-bestselling title had it not been assigned to every student in our younger child’s high school. And yes, even our reading-resistant progeny thought Boys to be pretty spectacular. For others who might be reading-on-the-page-averse, the late, great Edward Herrmann narrates with stupendously easy elegance; his perfectly complementary voice is an audible gift not to be missed.
Brown begins with his first meeting with the elderly Joe Rantz, who becomes his de facto protagonist in Boys. Rantz’s daughter had been reading aloud Brown’s debut title, Under a Flaming Sky, to her dying, nonagenarian father. By serendipity, Rantz wanted to meet Brown because “as a young man, [Rantz] had, by extraordinary coincidence, been a friend of Angus Hay, Jr. – the son of a person central to [Flaming Sky].” Mere glimpses of Rantz’s past were enough for Brown to know he wanted to write Rantz’s story, but as Brown was leaving, Rantz “admonished [him] gently, ‘But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.'”
The history-making ‘boat’ – not just the Husky Clipper which now hangs in the University of Washington’s Conibear Shellhouse – consisted of eight men who were chosen to make up the first freshman boat at the University of Washington in late fall of 1933. They would become, recognized by many able to judge such things, the “greatest” eight-man crew in history. As difficult, uncertain, grueling as their three-year journey toward Olympic gold proved to be – individually and together – almost from the beginning, what these eight were able to achieve again and again was finding their “swing” which “only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such prefect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others.”
The true story of how eight become one with the boat, led by an unsurpassed coxswain who takes them to ultimate victory, is a heart-thumping, breath-sucking adventure. Rantz’s background alone is the stuff of bestsellers: a dead mother at an early age, a childhood shuffled here and there, early abandonment because of a stepparent, and finding the love of his life in his teens who decides that Rantz “would always have a warm and loving home.” But Brown enhances Rantz’s story with many, not only weaving in highlights from the other boys’ inspiring lives, but also those of the legendary coaches involved, as well.
He layers in the life of George Yeoman Pocock, who is possibly the sport of crew’s greatest hero, whose wise, prescient words preface every chapter. With seamless agility, Brown elucidates pivotal sociopolitical moments, from East Coast privilege vs. West Coast grit, to world-altering events including the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and of course, the tragedy that was the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Brown even entertains with mention of the Roosevelts, early cross-country travel, transatlantic hierarchies, and the rise of propaganda filmmaking, and more.
Somehow, through it all, Brown never loses focus on ‘the boat,’ deftly keeping us readers cheering along.
Tidbit: Yes, Hollywood’s interpretation, no surprise, is coming to a megaplex near you. You can see the original Olympic footage (albeit interpreted by pioneering propagandist Leni Riefenstahl – Brown includes the fascinating ‘making-of’ in Boys) here (fast forward to 1:16). For maximum enlightenment, wait until you finish the book … and grab a tissue before you hit ‘play.’
As this year’s author-in-residence, the Park City School District shares Brown with the rest of the community tonight at the local library. I may have plenty of things to whinge about in my temporary home, but books sure ain’t one of them!
Readers: Young Adult, Adult