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The Boys in the Boat

Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

By Daniel James Brown

“Competitive rowing is an undertaking of incredible beauty preceded by brutal punishment.” George Yeoman Pocock – Master designer and builder of racing shells.

Beauty comes in many surprising forms. If you have ever seen a crew shell skim across a body of water with all rowers pulling in unison and the boat slicing through the water’s surface like the blade of a skate on ice, you know you have seen beauty, and strength, in motion. The book The Boys in the Boat is a story about various kinds of beauty and strength, and the challenges that are faced when trying to bring the two together in a crew boat. What sort of human alchemy can possibly fuse strength and beauty in the crucible of an nine-man rowing shell so that gold, Olympic gold, is the end result? Is it brute power? A coxswain’s strategy? Coaching finesse? No. Brown tells us that humility was the indispensable catalyzing agent that enabled the 1936 University of Washington rowing team to produce gold.

The #1 New York Times best-selling book The Boys in the Boat, written by Daniel James Brown and published in 2014 by Penguin Books, is built around the story of the group of eight rowers and one coxswain, all from working-class families, who, during the Great Depression, managed earn a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Germany. This feat was so unlikely at the time that if the rowers’ accomplishment hadn’t been documented by reputable journalists, photos and oddly enough, a Nazi propaganda movie, it would be almost impossible to believe.

The main flow of the book involves the classic tale of an underdog athletic team making it to the top, but The Boys in the Boat has so many lively streams of information feeding into the story that at no time does the reader feel the book is meant for sports enthusiasts only.

Brown, who has written two previous non-fiction novels and has received several awards for The Boys in the Boat, begins the book by describing the city of Seattle as it was in the fourth year of the Great Depression. From Brown’s report, we learn that the times were extremely bleak: “One in four working Americans–ten million people–had no job and no prospects of finding one, and only a quarter of them were receiving any kind of relief…Nobody could say when, or if, the hard times would ever end. And perhaps that was the worst of it. Whether you were a banker or a baker, a homemaker, or homeless, it was with you night and day — a terrible unrelenting uncertainty about the future, a feeling that the ground could drop out from under you for good at any moment. This was the grey and unpromising setting in American history that was the backdrop for The Boys in the Boat.”

Brown skillfully writes The Boys in the Boat from the center out – like the concentric rings that form in water after a rock has been tossed into it. The center of the story contains the events of the rowers’ home lives, particularly those of Joe Rantz, who was abandoned by his family at age fifteen. In the story, Brown includes intimate, homey details of daily life, as well as the obstacles the boys faced in their families, at the University of Washington in the classroom, and in the shell house. Brown helps us to see how the crew team developed and competed together year by year, but also writes of the doubts and worries that each athlete experienced. The boys knew that nothing was a “sure thing” in the sport of rowing, and Brown adroitly exposes the rowers’ anxieties about whether or not they would remain “in the boat.”

The shell house, a continuing fixture in the story, was an old airplane hangar at the University of Washington which was situated next to a body of water called the Montlake Cut. The shell house contained the rowers’ locker rooms, racks for storing the racing shells and, importantly, an upper level boat-building workshop.

The workshop was important because of the person who occupied it: George Yeoman Pocock. Pocock, who grew up on the water in Kingston upon Thames, England, learned the art of making racing shells from his father, and had become a master builder. Pocock’s expertise went much further than those of a shell builder, though: he had also been a champion rower in England in his day. Over the years he had also become an astute observer of young athletes and their attempts at becoming oarsmen. Brown describes Pocock this way:

“George Pocock learned much about the hearts and souls of young men. He learned to see hope where a boy thought there was no hope, to see skill where skill was obscured by ego or by anxiety…. And he came to understand that those almost mystical bonds of trust and affection, if nurtured correctly, might lift the crew above the ordinary sphere, transport it to a place where nine boys somehow became one thing — a thing that could not be quite defined, a thing that was so in tune with the water and the earth and the sky above that, as they rowed, effort was replaced by ecstasy. It was a rare thing, a sacred thing, a thing devoutly to be hoped for. And in the years since coming to [the University of] Washington, George Pocock had quietly become its high priest.”

The ever widening circle of the story moves from the oarsmen, to the coaches — their personalities and coaching styles, to the competition between the West Coast and East Coast University rowing teams, and then ripples further out to mix in national news, such as the unprecedented weather of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest and the massive flooding in the Northwest. In the outer ring of the story are international events: Hitler’s Nazi party was beginning to take over in Europe, and athletes around the globe were preparing for the 1936 Olympics, which were to be held in Germany. Brown’s comments on 1930’s historical happenings includes telling about the changes taking place in Germany as Hitler’s power grew. Brown writes of Hitler’s initial reluctance to host the Olympics, noting it was Joseph Goebbels who convinced Hitler that the Olympics could be a powerful tool to promote Nazi ideology. Brown then relates how the Nazi propaganda machine, headed up Goebbels and supported by a young movie maker, a woman named Leni Riefenstahl, made use of the Olympic grounds and the youth and athletes of Germany to portray Aryan superiority in film. That highly successful film by Riefenstahl, Olympia, set the standard for future films made about the summer Olympics, and according to Brown, is still greatly esteemed among film makers today.

Brown masterfully intermingles all the personal stories, historical events, and meteorological phenomena, then brings all these elements together in The Boys in the Boat to give a fully developed picture of the University of Washington crew team as world class athletes competing at the most honored of all amateur athletic events, the Olympics.

Even though from the very beginning of The Boys in the Boat makes clear that the US 8-man racing crew will win the gold medal at the Olympic games, Brown keeps readers breathlessly engaged in the book, and the competition, to the end. His painstaking descriptions of the difficulties involved in the race, the physical demands made on the rowers, one of whom very likely had pneumonia on race day, and the impressive Olympic venue filled with wildly screaming German fans makes putting the book down virtually impossible. And just as importantly, the emotional struggle of the boys, particularly Joe Rantz, is mesmerizing. Joe, who throughout the book, wrestled constantly to put the needs of the team ahead of his own insecurities, who was continually trying, and often failing, to learn the humility needed to achieve the harmony, balance and rhythm required to be a competitive rower at the world class level, met his demons once again in the final race at the Olympics. The outcome of that meeting is truly inspiring.

The Boys in the Boat is a remarkable book. It has adventure, love, suspense, and mystery. It shows incredible examples of human failure and success. It portrays the undeniable existence of good and evil, and displays works of artistry as well as brute force. But where it shines, where The Boys in the Boat is really is worth its weight in gold, is in the story of the lives of the nine young men who learned, together, that humility is one of greatest, strongest, most beautiful treasures in the world.

“I (author Daniel James Brown) shook Joe’s (Joe Rantz) hand again and told him I would like to come back and talk to him some more, and that I would like to write a book about his rowing days. Joe grasped my hand again and said he’d like that, but then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, ‘But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.’

From the Prologue to The Boys in the Boat