Friday, May 1, 2015

Review: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

When I first heard about crew, I thought there could probably not be any better sport, to be out on the water and pulling on oars sounded amazing.  Then I realized that crew rowed in all weather, and they often rowed in the early mornings, at least where we lived. Not being a morning person, my interest in crew petered out before it really even got started. But I still enjoy watching the fluid, effortless looking pull of men and women out in their shells. Daniel James Brown's non-fiction work The Boys in the Boat gave me a renewed appreciation for the sport as it wove its tale of nine young men striving to not only dominate their college sport but also to overcome the odds and take home gold from Hitler's 1936 Olympics.

There has been much written about Hitler's Olympics but until now, the focus has never turned to 8 oarsmen and 1 coxswain from the University of Washington despite the fascinating story behind their gold medal performance. Opening with the start of crew tryouts in 1933, this book looks at not only the grueling road to earning a seat in the boat but also at the state of the country and the world as well as the personal history of one of the young men who overcame so much to take his place as a part of this amazing crew.

Joe Rantz suffered a desperately poor and unhappy childhood. His mother died when he was young and his stepmother, disappointed in her own life and resentful of her stepson, kicked the young boy out of the family home twice, cruelly separating him from his half siblings and his father. He learned to make his own way in the world but his trust and willingness to depend on others was damaged by the lack of love he was shown at such a young age.  From very early on, he had to fend for himself with only the loyalty of his long-time girlfriend to show him a glimmer of his worth.  Despite his family's abandonment of him, and in the shadow of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, the lanky young man managed to scrounge up tuition to the University of Washington, where he made his way to the crew house in hopes of joining the team.

The University of Washington was one of the powerhouses of the sport, regularly battling Cal for West Coast supremacy. Washington's coach, Al Ulbrickson, had a keen eye and a good understanding of what made a boat come together into something that transcended the individual boys. UW also had the benefit of Englishman George Pocock, the preminent shell builder, working out of their boathouse. Not only was Pocock a master craftsman of elegant and fast boats, but he had an instinctual understanding of the sport and shared his insights with Ulbrickson.

As the story moved along, Brown wove Joe Rantz' personal story with the larger tale of the boys coalescing into a team over a three year period. And then he wove both of those narratives with the mechanics of the sport, the history of the US in the mid to late 1930s, and the long-ranging preparations for the Olympics and the fa├žade that Hitler created of a prosperous and happy Germany. With so many pieces of the story, it became a true inspirational epic as Rantz found belonging in the boat, the boys found their stroke together, and they displayed enormous heart in the face of seemingly insurmountable road blocks on their way to Olympic waters. Despite knowing the outcome of the story, the tension remained high throughout the telling of each race, making for a thrilling read. A fascinating story of amazing perseverance and glory spun from the humblest of origins, this will certainly appeal to athletes and WWII buffs. But even those who have no interest in crew as a sport should not miss this gripping and stunning tale.

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