The Boys in the Boat
By Daniel James Brown
Penguin Books, Paperback, 9780143125471, May 2014, 404pp.
The Short of It:
Nine young men from the University Washington’s rowing team go up against all odds to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The Rest of It:
A member from my book club said it best.
It’s not a story about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but the journey these young men took to get there.
Most of the book centers around Joe Rantz. As it turns out, his daughter lived next door to the author and approached him about documenting her father’s story. After sitting down with him, it was obvious to Brown that Joe’s story had to be told.
Joe came from a humble home. His mother died when he was fairly young. His father remarried a very young woman. A woman who did not take a liking to Joe. Probably because he was a constant reminder of his father’s first wife. Needless to say, the father packs up his bride and Joe’s other siblings and eventually leaves Joe to fend for himself.
As a child, Joe realized that in order to survive, he’d have to live off the land. He had shelter but food was something he never had enough of. When he got old enough to work and go to college, he found himself at the University of Washington’s shell house and decided to go out for the rowing team.
There, he met some notable people. Al Ulbrickson, his relentless coach and George Pocock, who designed the racing shells that Joe spent so much time in. Together, these two men had quite an impact on Joe. He already possessed a good work ethic, but the respect that he had for these two men was evident and it touched everything he did.
Much of the story is how they got to the Olympics and what they had to overcome to get there. There were financial struggles for most of the boys. They didn’t have the money that their East Coast counterparts had. They battled illness, too. Almost to the point of death. The logistics of who could be in the boat and where, was a constant challenge for the coaches. They would re-position the boys daily in an attempt to find the perfect combination. It was grueling and it kept all of the boys on their toes, knowing that they could get cut at anytime.
The author did an excellent job of introducing the terminology without being too technical. I had no trouble following along. Although I did want to know more about the Berlin Olympics, the author does not spend much time on that subject. You should know this up front.
That said, I really enjoyed it. The members of my book club seemed to enjoy it too. There is plenty to talk about between the sport itself, the coaching style, the personal lives of these young men and what was going on in the world at the time. I don’t read much non-fiction but this one was a nice surprise.
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