THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown

(1936 University of Washington rowers who won gold at the Berlin Olympics)

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown is nothing short of a labor of love.  In describing the journey of the University of Washington rowing team from their blue collar origins, facing numerous financial obstacles, and confronting well funded opponents as they sought to represent the United States in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, the author has presented a riveting narrative that will touch the reader on many levels.  In addition to the personal stories that are described, Brown writes of the poetry that is a necessity for a rowing team to be successful.  The story is told through the eyes of many of the participants in their quest for rowing perfection, but a number of characters stand out.  The coaches;  Al Ulbrickson, a quiet taskmaster who keeps his emotions inside, his freshman coach, Tom Bolles, who develops many of the rowers; to Joe Rantz, who must overcome poverty and abandonment by his family, to George Pocock, the British craftsman who lovingly constructed the shells that the rowers would use on their way to Berlin and after.   The story begins in the Seattle area in the midst of the Great Depression and its impact on the region in general and the young men whose futures depend on making the University of Washington’s rowing team.

The story focuses on the life of Joe Rantz whose mother died of throat cancer when he was a nine and was sent to Pennsylvania to live with an aunt.  Later, his father remarries and when Joe returns to his family he does not get along with his knew step mother.  Eventually Joe’s father must make a choice between his son and his second wife and the family they were building.  After the family home burns down Joe is exiled to live in a school house away from the family for a period of time, when finally Joe’s father informs him that the family was moving away and that he had to remain and fend for himself at the age of fifteen.  For the next few years Joe employs the survival skills his father has taught him, and skills he developed on his own like poaching salmon and stealing alcohol for resale to overcome the obstacles he faces.  Finally, he is taken in by his married older brother and is able to graduate from high school and gain admittance to the University of Washington.  After being recruited by the freshman rowing coach, Joe realizes the ticket to his future was to make the rowing team.  Joe had little money and few clothes and lived in a room at the YMCA.  He took a number of menial jobs and fit them in around his studies and the torturous grind that was college rowing.  Brown follows the trials that Joe must overcome as he draws the reader into the narrative to the point that you do not want to put the book down.

I have read a number of books of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  David Clay Large’s, THE NAZI GAMES: THE OLYMPICS OF 1936, and BERLIN GAMES: HOW THE NAZIS STOLE THE OLYMPIC DREAM by Guy Walters stand out, but Brown’s effort surpasses anything I have read for its detail, understanding the human emotion of sport, and how world events, particularly the rise of Nazi Germany impinged on the athletic stage.  Brown does a wonderful job of integrating the history of the time period into his narrative.  The reader is exposed to the devastation caused by the depression in the mid 1930s.  The unemployment and resulting poverty and their effect on families as fathers are forced to leave their children in order to seek a job elsewhere.  The Dust Bowl that blankets the Midwest at first and then destroys top soil throughout the United States resulting in the destruction of a major part of American agricultural production is reviewed in detail.  Overseas, the rise of Adolf Hitler to power is explained and the resulting violence against Gypsies, Jews, and Catholics is presented.  On a more personal level, Brown discusses the hatred between Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, and Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s chosen film maker as they fight over how the message of the Nazi ideal should be presented to the world.  The reader witnesses the laying of the foundation of what will grow into the Holocaust after the Olympic Games are completed.  The reader is made aware of the political infighting in the United States as President Roosevelt tries to deal with the problem of Nazi expansion.  In exploring these avenues, Brown places the Olympic Games in their proper historical context, and the importance of a Jesse Owens and the many athletes who sought to show Nazi racial theory for what it really was.

Apart from the personal stories of the nine men who will emerge from the rowing competitions from 1933 to 1936 in regattas such those on the Pacific coast, Poughkeepsie, New York, and the Olympic trials in Princeton, New Jersey what truly surprised me was the training that the rowers were exposed to.  I confess my knowledge of rowing is nil, but after reading Brown’s narrative I at least have some understanding of what the athletes went through.  The author’s description of “pain” cuts to the core of what these men accomplished.  For Brown the common denominator for the rower is that pain is “part and parcel” of the learning experience.  “It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.” (40) Brown’s discussion of the mechanics of rowing is important for the novice reader to understand what it means to have a successful “boat.”  In the case of the University of Washington’s first boat, “every one of them had come from humble origins or had been humbled by the ravages of the hard times in which they had grown up.  Each in his own way had learned that nothing could be taken for granted in life…..The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility—the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole—humility was the common gateway through which they were able to come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before.” (241)

(US rowers win gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympic games)

The unbelievable demands of training, the fear of not having enough money for tuition each semester, feeling of anxiety, were among the many things that each rower had to overcome.  They knew the odds were stacked against them as their chief western competitor; the University of California had better facilities and financial support as did the eastern Ivy League schools.  Brown raises the important issue of social class in explaining the opponents the rowers had to contend with.  The ivy rowers mostly came from prep schools, had parents who were bankers and lawyers, and did not have to worry about their futures.  On the other hand, as Brown eloquently describes Joe Rantz and his team mates were blue collar in origin, and poverty was their life’s norm.  Brown’s rendition of the important characters in his narrative is sensitive and honest and as the story progresses the reader is rooting for “U Wash,” and as the author explains strategy, motivation, and the details of each race you feel as if you are sitting in the shell with the rowers, or you are inside the head of Bobby Moch, the coxswain, planning his next move as the rowing process has a very important cerebral component.

The author presents the pageantry and ostentation that was the 1936 Nazi Olympics in great detail.  He describes the hiding of any evidence of what Nazism was in reality; from removing the Gypsies, to taking down all evidence of anti-Semitism, and the vicious articles in the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, magically disappearing.  Brown describes the first six rowing competitions in which the Germans won five gold medals.  He reserves his best for the final race involving the nine on nine competition that all looked forward to.  It is interesting how the US boat was placed in the worst lane, when having won the preliminary race they should have had the best one.  Needless to say, the US rowers were at a disadvantage from the outset.  Brown’s overall description of the race is amazing as the reader can hear his voice as if he were rendering the race’s description vocally as a play by play on the radio that millions across America were listening to.  The US would win the race by six-tenths of a second over Italy and one second over Germany as Hitler stood up and immediately walked out.  After reading Brown’s rendition of the race I immediately found a You Tube film on my lap top and watched the emotion of the rowers at the race’s conclusion over and over.  THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is a wonderful story, and what makes it better is that it is shows the triumph of the human spirit and though it is a “sports” book, it is one that can be enjoyed by all.


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