The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1939 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
Rating: ★★★★★ // History lesson that reads like fiction
Favorite Line: “All were merged into one smoothly working machine; they were, in fact, a poem of motion, a symphony of swinging blades.”
During the years which stood on the eve of WWII, a group of young men thought not of going off to war, or even of making their everlasting mark on history, instead their thoughts were on a narrow long boat in the cold waters at Washington University. This boat became an extension of their bodies, their most treasured possession, and before they knew it, their ticket to the 1939 Olympic Games to represent their country in Berlin.
Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.
The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard and to find a place he can call home. The crew is assembled by an enigmatic coach and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat builder, but it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. They remind the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together—a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism.
Drawing on the boys’ own diaries and journals, their photos and memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, The Boys in the Boat is an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate story of nine working-class boys from the American west who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really meant. It will appeal to readers of Erik Larson, Timothy Egan, James Bradley, and David Halberstam’s The Amateurs.
I would have never thought a book about a rowing team could be so amazing. While the story is very different, this book feels like Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. This story is non-fiction, yet it reads like a historical fiction novel…a very detailed and well written historical fiction. By the middle I was soaking up all the information about the rowing team, and by the end I felt like the biggest rowing team in the world, and felt very invested in the collegiate rowing rivalries.
The best parts of the story follow Joe Rantz, a hard-working boy who had fallen on the wrong side of luck many times. He was an unlikely hero of the rowing team, but the amazing thing is that his crew mates were all untraditional rowers. They were all blue collar kids, barely making it into college, barely staying in college, but yet somehow made it on the country’s best rowing team.
“Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That’s what he gets from rowing.”
This story is very detailed and precise, which makes it seem like you are watching it as a movie and not reading it. The narrative is beautiful and it fills you with pride for these boys. The characters are so real and alive, you feel as if you were one of the fans watching their races in live time, or the ones all over the country listening to their races on the radio. You feel pain with them, you struggle with their doubts and their anxieties, and you feel elevated with their triumphs and joys.
It’s hard to pinpoint who is really the most important character of the story, because, like rowing, the book relies on so many different characters to make the story work. Any one character could not impact the end as they did without any of the others. They boys work off each other, and they thrive from their mentors, coaches, loved ones, and countrymen.
“Rowing is perhaps the toughest of sports. Once the race starts, there are no time-outs, no substitutions. It calls upon the limits of human endurance. The coach must therefore impart the secrets of the special kind of endurance that comes from mind, heart, and body.
—George Yeoman Pocock”
This is not like many WWII books, because it really does not speak much of the upcoming war. It addresses it, and of course the Olympic games take place at the beginning of the Nazi era, but the lack of the war was so important to the message of the book. These boys were normal, everyday kids. They had pains and troubles, joys and amazements. They had dreams like any other, and like many boys of that age, they had the small bit of dread in their stomach that all their hopes and dreams could be crushed with the impending war.
“The wood…taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves. About the reasons we were all here.”
This reality was worldwide. Millions of people were impacted by the war, but first, before it all began, 9 boys in a boat, backed by their entire country, were able to grasp their dreams and ensure their spot in history.
“Standing there, watching them, it occurred to me that when Hitler watched Joe and the boys fight their way back from the rear of the field to sweep ahead of Italy and Germany seventy-five years ago, he saw, but did not recognize, heralds of his doom. He could not have known that one day hundreds of thousands of boys just like them, boys who shared their essential natures—decent and unassuming, not privileged or favored by anything in particular, just loyal, committed, and perseverant—would return to Germany dressed in olive drab, hunting him down.”