Book Review: The Boys in the Boat

By Daniel James Brown 

I can honestly assure you, dear readers, that I have no regrets whatsoever about dedicating a recent three day bank holiday weekend to reading this charming book.  Daniel James Brown’s robust offering tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

Price: £20:00
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication Date: 6 Jun 2013
ISBN: 978-0230763845
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The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, cast aside by his family at an early age, abandoned and left to fend for himself in the woods of Washington State, he turns to rowing as a way of escaping his past. His mother died when he was 3. He lived with relatives and at times with his father. He was living with his brother, Fred, and attending Roosevelt High School when UW rowing coach Al Ulbrickson Sr. saw him practicing on the high bar for the gymnastics team and was impressed. The crew is assembled and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat builder, but it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. Do not fret if you know nothing about the sport of rowing by the way, you will be gradually and eloquently educated about the rigours of this precise yet brutally physical activity.

Drawing on the boys’ own diaries and journals, their photos and memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, The Boys in the Boat is an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate story of nine working-class boys from the American west who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really is.

Over 70,000 people, including Hitler himself, watched from the sidelines on August 14, 1936, as the nine Americans climbed into their boat, struggling to hear over the wind whipping across the waters of Lake Grunau, 20 miles south of Berlin. Ranked last, they were seated farthest from the starting announcer, in lane 6, with crowd favourites Germany and Italy poised in lanes 3 and 4. Rowing at 44 stokes per minute, the team was faster than ever before, surpassing Great Britain, Hungary, Switzerland and Germany, and overtaking Italy in the final 10 strokes of the race.  Only six tenths of a second ahead, the Americans finished the 2,000-meter race at 6:00.86, winning the gold medal, and setting both a world and Olympic record for eight-oared crew.

After regrouping, the Americans paddled their boat to the dock in front of the grandstand to receive the victors' laurel wreaths. In a separate ceremony in Berlin's Olympic stadium, Roger Morris, Charles Day, Gordon Adam, John White, James McMillin, George Hunt, Joe Rantz, Don Hume, and Robert Moch received their gold medals.

Hitler’s reaction to the U.S. victory was neither recorded by the assembled press nor described over the radio. The German radio broadcast revelled in the overall quality of the race, with the announcer boasting that Deutschland’s “bronze medal has a golden glow.” As the “Star-Spangled Banner” played, the crowd gave the Nazi salute to the American victors. In wider history the story of the 1936 Olympics remains focused on the brilliant achievements of Jesse Owens and the filmmaking of Leni Riefenstahl and almost eighty years later the feats of the Washington crew have largely been forgotten, until now!

Daniel James Brown has crafted for us a personal story full of lyricism and unexpected beauty that rises above the grand sweep of history this story traverses. Brown also explores America’s struggles during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and sets the stage for the Nazi party’s rise to power. There is an inside look at Hitler’s Germany during the Olympic preparations, and glimpses of Joseph Goebbels’ powerful Ministry of Propaganda seen through  Leni Riefenstahl’s cameras as she captures her imposing propaganda film.

The Boys in the Boat is a traditional non-fiction historic epic at its best: richly detailed, authoritative, and nuanced. A distillation of the story, knowledge and perspectives of the lives of nine incredible individuals.