The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown.
This book is a sterling example of what is often described as narrative nonfiction—joining good research with compelling, character-driven storytelling—reads like a novel.
It is the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and coxswain, made up of sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers who defeated elite and prestigious rivals such as Harvard, Princeton, Cambridge, and Oxford. Much like Seabiscuit of the same Great Depression era, it gave the country an underdog to cheer for.
There is so much to discuss in this book that my initial efforts in writing this review seemed to fall short, so I decided to share the author’s words which captured my heart immediately.
“This book was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through wet woods to a modest frame house where Joe Rantz lay dying.
“I knew he had been one of the nine young men from the State of Washington who shocked both the rowing world and Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Olympics. He talked about learning the art of rowing, about long, cold hours on the water, about marching into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin but it was when he tried to talk about the boat that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes. It was about a shared experience when nine good-hearted men gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love.”
Each chapter begins with a photo and a quote from the boat builder, such as, “It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you’re near perfection, you’re touching the Divine.”
We are also taken into Nazi Germany as they prepare for the Olympics and given historical glimpses of key members of the Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, run by Joseph Goebbels.
In the author’s words, “It’s harder to imagine a starker representation of good and evil brought face-to-face than these nine American kids dressed in ragged old sweatshirts and mismatched shorts racing against regimented blonde oarsman in crisp white uniforms with swastikas on their chests.”
Author Brown says, “As more of Joe’s story unfolded, I began to see a great tale there—intense competition amongst individuals, bitter rivalry between schools, a boy left alone in the world, a fiercely demanding coach, a wise mentor, a love interest, even an evil stepmother. And the climax of the story played out on an enormously dramatic stage—the 1936 Olympics, under the gaze of Hitler himself. What more could a story teller ask for?”
As a reader, I don’t think we can have asked for more.
Reviewer Violetta Armour is a new resident of Sun Lakes from Ahwatukee where she owned a bookstore, Pages, in the early ‘90s. She is the author of four novels, including the award-winning I’ll Always Be with You, which has become a book club favorite. Her books are available at the Chandler and Phoenix libraries and on Amazon. She also reviews books on her blog at https://serendipity-reflections.blogspot.com.