Review – The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

An inspiring true story.

Synopsis from GoodReads:
Daniel James Brown’s robust book 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.

The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard and to find a place he can call home. The crew is assembled by an enigmatic coach and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat builder, but it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. They remind the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together—a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism.

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 meant.

I’ve been hearing about this book for years, ever since a book club near me picked it.  So it’s been on my list for a while and I’m so glad I finally got around to it.  And, in fact, reading it when I did was actually really nice since it was just after reading Address Unknown, which takes place at the same time but is fictional and much sadder.

Brown skillfully weaves different events and places together, taking us from a poor childhood in the northwest (Joe Rantz’s) to Washington University’s rowing teams over the course of a decade to Nazi Germany’s elite and some of their power struggles.  Nor does he shy away from mentioning the horrors of the time, although he doesn’t dwell on them because they aren’t the focus of the novel.

The discussion of spectacle – of the way the Berlin Olympics were staged, filmed, and directed to make Germany look sophisticated and STRONG (not-quite-cheating-but-not-exactly-not-cheating) – definitely rings true with certain things today, and I’ll leave that there to keep this from becoming a firestorm.

I understand the decision to focus on one of the nine more than the others and I think I understand why it was Rantz thanks to the author’s note at the end, but I wish there had been a bit more about some of the other boys in the boat.  I felt like I really knew Rantz but that I had less of a grasp of the others at the end.

This nonfiction narrative was exactly the book I needed at this moment in time.  The message of perseverance and hard work, the drive these young men had, was something I needed to read right now.  I’m not sure that it’s going to get me out of my reading slump, but I think it’s been a good kick in the rear motivation-wise for my recovery process.

5 out of 5 stars, highly recommend.

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