The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
The Boys in the Boat is the most impressive piece of narrative nonfiction I’ve read in quite some time. The author, Daniel James Brown, recounts the rowing successes of a group of student athletes from the University of Washington, beginning with their freshman year upset of a much more highly regarded crew from the University of California at Berkeley and climaxing three years later with their victory in Berlin at the 1936 Olympic games. Even though the reader knows the outcome in advance, the story of how the boys came together and how they learned to row as a seamless unit is absolutely riveting.
Brown centers his narrative on one of the boys, Joe Rantz, a broad-shouldered young man from Sequim, Washington, whose family had abandoned him as a boy, who was struggling to work his way through college, who often doubted his own personal rowing abilities and his overall sense of teamwork, and whose high school sweetheart steadfastly stood by him whenever times were tough. Woven into the story of Joe’s life are anecdotes about the other boys in the boat. Some are friends he meets the first day he turns out for crew, some are rivals, some are fellow summertime construction workers at Grand Coulee Dam. Watching the boys meld together, psychologically as well as physically, is an important ingredient not only of their story but also of their phenomenal success.
Brown also is interested in the men who led the boys to victory. Tom Bolles, the freshman coach; George Pocock, who built the racing shells; Al Ulbrickson, head rowing coach and task master extraordinaire. We see each of them distinctly, and we learn details of their contributions to the boys’ triumphs. Brown also writes of other men crucial to the sport of rowing, men from other universities and other countries where crew was better established. What drove the Washington boys, in part, was the fact that they were all rough-hewn westerners. None of them had much money, and they dearly wanted to best the California and the east coast and the European elite.
Another facet of Brown’s book is more panoramic, a social and cultural overview of the 1930s. First the reader sees Seattle, with its apparent backwater sense of self. For Seattle’s citizens, the crew becomes a sort of ratification of their own worthiness as a city. Then the reader learns about the Poughkeepsie regattas in New York, where the Ivy Leaguers always expect to win. They don’t. In fact, the crew rowing Washington’s Husky Clipper beat the varsity field three years in a row. Joe Rantz, personally, never lost a race. Finally, the reader encounters Nazi Germany. We learn of Hitler’s investment in the 1936 Olympics and we also hear what is happening behind the scenes. While the boys are enjoying the sights and sounds of the games, the reader is seeing the hideous racial and ethnic prejudice that Hitler temporarily is trying to hide.
As a result, The Boys in the Boat is much more than a book about national pride and American exceptionalism. It is also the story of how individual commitment can lead to teamwork and, ultimately, win after win after win. There’s a word for that in the rowing world: “swing,” when it feels as if the boat is part of each rower, “moving as if on its own.” Brown explains, “Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.” The ‘boys in the boat’ learn to swing repeatedly, as does The Boys in the Boat. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Daniel James Brown: The Indifferent Stars Above, The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride; Under a Flaming Sky, The Great Hinkley Firestorm of 1894.