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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics Hardcover – June 4, 2013
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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
*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
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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.
Daniel James Brown has beautifully crafted a nonfiction book with all the elements that make a great novel: gripping plot, unforgettable characters, dramatic conflict, and heart-pounding suspense. Injecting suspense into a story where the outcome is known is quite a trick, but Brown accomplishes it superlatively.
We meet the nine boys as college freshmen at the University of Washington in 1933. In the middle of the Great Depression, most of them are valiantly trying to stay afloat financially in order to stay in school. None had ever rowed anything larger than a rowboat; the main incentive in trying out for crew was the possibility of a part-time campus job if they made the team - no athletic scholarships here. The story follows one boy in particular, Joe Rantz, whose childhood deprivations rival those of Oliver Twist and who had to resort to some enterprising artful dodging of his own just to stay alive. The nine boys, their brilliant but frustrated coach Al Ulbrickson, and their team guru, renowned boat builder George Pocock, overcome obstacle after obstacle in their quest to represent the U.S. and win gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. As the best storytellers do, the author kept me continually on the edge of my seat; just as soon as one incredibly hard challenge- miserable training weather, economic hardships, wily opponents, devious Nazis - is surmounted, another even more daunting one is thrown in their path.
Seamlessly juxtaposed with the crew cliffhanger is the story of Hitler's engineering of the 1936 Olympics as a showcase for Nazi Germany, removing all traces of anti-Semitism and presenting Berlin as squeaky-clean and as wholesome as Disneyland.
Many light moments are interspersed with the strife and drama. My favorite is an incredible adventure the boys had when they took the coach's launch out onto the Hudson River on an evening before the national championship Poughkeepsie Regatta. I won't spoil it for you here, but what happened to them then could never happen now; it's one of the many unforgettable anecdotes in this book.
In fact, many of the elements in this story are incredible. If this had been a work of fiction, I might have found fault with the author for exaggerating at times in order to emphasize a plot point. But in fact, Daniel James Brown did meticulous and exhaustive research, and the events portrayed here are no author's fabrication - it all really happened! Brown's skill in relating this true story to make it seem as if you're reading an enthralling novel, is what elevates "The Boys in the Boat" to the extraordinary level. Don't miss this remarkable, inspiring book!