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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics Paperback – May 27, 2014
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Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat is the kind of nonfiction book that reads like a novel. Centered around the life of Joe Rantz—a farmboy from the Pacific Northwest who was literally abandoned as a child—and set during the Great Depression, The Boys in the Boat is a character-driven story with a natural crescendo that will have you racing to the finish. In 1936, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team raced its way to the Berlin Olympics for an opportunity to challenge the greatest in the world. How this team, largely composed of rowers from “foggy coastal villages, damp dairy farms, and smoky lumber towns all over the state,” managed to work together and sacrifice toward their goal of defeating Hitler’s feared racers is half the story. The other half is equally fascinating, as Brown seamlessly weaves in the story of crew itself. This is fast-paced and emotional nonfiction about determination, bonds built by teamwork, and what it takes to achieve glory. —Chris Schluep--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* If Jesse Owens is rightfully the most famous American athlete of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, repudiating Adolf Hitler’s notion of white supremacy by winning gold in four events, the gold-medal-winning effort by the eight-man rowing team from the University of Washington remains a remarkable story. It encompasses the convergence of transcendent British boatmaker George Pocock; the quiet yet deadly effective UW men’s varsity coach, Al Ulbrickson; and an unlikely gaggle of young rowers who would shine as freshmen, then grow up together, a rough-and-tumble bunch, writes Brown, not very worldly, but earnest and used to hard work. Brown (Under a Flaming Sky, 2006) takes enough time to profile the principals in this story while using the 1936 games and Hitler’s heavy financial and political investment in them to pull the narrative along. In doing so, he offers a vivid picture of the socioeconomic landscape of 1930s America (brutal), the relentlessly demanding effort required of an Olympic-level rower, the exquisite brainpower and materials that go into making a first-rate boat, and the wiles of a coach who somehow found a way to, first, beat archrival University of California, then conquer a national field of qualifiers, and finally, defeat the best rowing teams in the world. A book that informs as it inspires. --Alan Moores --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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The research is mostly based on primary resources, including interviews with some members who were still living as the book was pulled together. Family members did supply additional information to make this undertaking feel solid and well thought out.
Concepts from Daniel Brown to consider that are mixed into the story to teach all of us: 1) One of the fundamental challenges in rowing is that when any one member of a crew goes into a slump the entire crew goes with him. 2) There are certain laws of physics by which all crew coaches live and die. The speed of a racing shell is determined primarily by two factors: the power produced by the combined strokes of the oars, and the stroke rate, the number of strokes the crew takes each minute. 3) To defeat an adversary who was your equal, maybe even your superior, it wasn't necessarily enough just to give your all from start to finish. You had to master your opponent mentally. When the critical moment in a close race was upon you, you had to know something he did not- that down in your core you still had something in reserve, something you had not yet shown. 4) The things that held them together--trust in one another, mutual respect, humility, fair play, watching out for one another--those were also part of what America meant to all of them. There are other great ideas to ponder in this epic almost 400 page, could-not-put-down story.
I am not giving away anything by telling you that they DO win Gold at the 1936 Olympics. It is HOW they did it that is so darn exciting. Even knowing the end result does not diminish this bigger than life adventure. This is a must read, period.
The author is a masterful storyteller. The picture of the rowers in the Great Depression, and their backgrounds (particularly Joe Rantz, who epitomizes the spirit of rugged individualism in toto), is fascinating. Also interesting is the strategy and teamwork involved in competitive rowing. The entire book is fascinating, but perhaps nothing surpasses the German side of the tail; Nazi officialdom bent on making the 1936 Olympics showcase their new model man and nation. Our American boys throw a monkey-wrench in Hitler's showcase (as does Jesse Owens). The US crew's experience in the Fatherland is priceless storytelling.
The decision Daniel Brown made to focus the core of the story on one individual, Joe Rantz, to represent the 1932 University of Washington freshman team (and eventual college and Olympic champions) was a key reason this story succeeded at such a high level. I've read other books about teams where the author makes the mistake of giving equal treatment to far too many characters. In most cases the story suffers as the narrative lacks a cohesive flow and gets choppy while it attempts to balance too many storylines. Brown certainly provides ample narrative treatment to key characters (i.e., coach Al Ulbrickson, boatbuilder George Pocock) and other members of the "nine".
However, Rantz's story has the hallmarks to carry this story---- a dirt poor childhood from a broken family in Western Washington just as the Great Depression begins to unfold. Seattle and the surrounding area was nothing like the tech centric region and gateway to Asia that it is today. it was a region centered around the logging, farming and fishing industries. Rantz's broken family background and estrangement from his father as he entered UW made him highly distrustful of others. His initial experiences at UW did nothing to dispel these feelings as his more well off crew teammates looked down on him and his tattered used clothes. Joyce, Joe's girlfriend and eventual wife, was a bedrock in the relationship and Brown does a nice job keeping the focus of the relationship on the aspects that helped stabilize Joe and his confidence during his greatest moments of self-doubt.
Brown creates vivid and breathtaking depictions of the college rowing races between UW and Cal and the IRA championships back in Poughkeepsie, NY as well as the scintillating "photo" finish at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. However, the best part of the book aren't these dramatic races, but the everyday training and struggles these men encountered throughout the four years. The inner doubts, tireless training, personal struggles and uncertainty with each other in the boat during their training nadir were the most revealing and compelling aspects of "The Boys in the Boat". Ultimately, it was those struggles and self-doubts that they overcome as a team in the momentous summer of 1936, winning the IRA championships and the Gold Medal in stunning fashion.
"The Boys in the Boat" is brilliant storytelling and whether you are a sports fan or not, a rower or not, this is an inspiring read. I'm thankful to Daniel Brown for allowing me to experience this story.