It’s a total mystery to me how an author can take a historical event, one where the outcome is already known, and yet chronicle that event in such a way that readers breathlessly follow every twist and turn toward the inevitable finish.
Such is the case with Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” (Viking Adult, 2013), his nonfiction account of how nine young men from the University of Washington’s rowing team competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and took home the gold medal, angering German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his cronies in the process.
In the 1930s, competitive rowing was an immensely popular sport – on par with football today. Teams at prestigious colleges on the East Coast largely dominated the sport, and, as today, the major competition on the West Coast was between powerhouses UC Berkeley and the University of Washington.
While Brown details the rowing rivalries, he also documents the stories of many of the men – both rowers and coaches – who made the remarkable Olympic win possible.
There are so many heroes in “The Boys in the Boat” that it’s difficult to prioritize their importance. Brown begins with one of the young men, Joe Rantz, whom the author met in the early 2000s, when Rantz was dying, and interviewed extensively for the book.
One of the book’s strengths lies in Rantz’s recounting of the emotions evoked by the momentous victory. After the team’s underdog upset, for example, the other young men celebrated wildly all night in Berlin. Rantz, however, stayed in his bunk contemplating his experience: “He had known in that instant that there could be no hesitation, no shred of indecision. He had had no choice but to throw himself into each stroke as if he were throwing himself off of a cliff into a void, with unquestioned faith that the others would be there to save him. …Now he felt whole. He was ready to go home.”
Rantz’s life story unfolds in some detail, and it is heartbreaking. His family moved out of their house twice and refused to take young Joe with them, apparently because his stepmother thought the family couldn’t afford his care during the Depression. Consequently, Rantz, like several of his crewmates, grew up performing all sorts of hard, physical labor.
The men turned what could have broken their spirits – and their bones, for that matter – into an advantage during racing. They knew pain, an inevitable byproduct of the grueling sport of eight-oar crews. The physically rugged Washingtonians were simply in better shape than their competition.
Readers meet another remarkable man in “The Boys in the Boat” – George Pocock, a boat-builder from England who not only built all of the handmade cedar boats the team used in its races, but also dispensed invaluable advice to the crew and coach. Quotes of his philosophy on competitive rowing open each chapter.
In addition to the personal portraits, Brown provides fascinating context to the story through his descriptions of the political backdrop of 1930s Germany, including Hitler’s rise to power, his desire to use the Olympics as a showcase for the Third Reich and movie producer Leni Riefenstahl’s innovations in filming the competition for her 1938 movie “Olympia.”
Book clubs that enjoyed Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” (Random House, 2010) and devour other true-life tales of courage should sail through “The Boys in the Boat,” a fast, educational, well-written and absorbing read.
Leslie Ashmore is a Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.