Daniel James Brown’s THE BOYS IN THE BOAT ranks among my top non-fiction reads of 2014. It is a captivating human story made even more compelling by Brown’s remarkable story telling. This book is much more than its brilliant depiction of the sport of crew with nine men acting as one in an eight pared shell. Brown wraps their journey to victory in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the history of the times. The culture of young men growing up in the lumber and mining towns of the Pacific Northwest with few prospects beyond a life of hardship and physical labor. The author brilliantly captures the darkness of the depression of the 1930s and its impact on families and family life. He incorporates the drumbeat of the Nazi’s, preceding the outbreak of WW II, and the elaborate deception of Hitler surrounding the 1936 Olympic Games.
Out of this era of despair appear nine young working class men, eight oarsmen and a coxswain , who literally by chance come together under a brilliant coach and an iconic boat builder at the University of Washington. Among these young men is teenager Joe Rantz, a boy with few prospects in life after being abandoned at age ten by his father an step-mother. His true story of grit and determination swells the heart of the reader right through the exciting climax of this great American drama. The Washington eight-oared shell captured the imagination of the country much as did the underdog racehorse Seabiscuit, as so beautifully chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same name.
Could there ever again be nine young men more deserving of ultimate triumph ? Could a nation in a great depression be uplifted by a sport so obscure as crew, which was formerly dominated only by the eastern elite. Shades of Seabiscuit versus Man O’ War! Could Hitler’s propaganda machine receive a huge setback by nine determined young American’s in eight-oared-shell ? It all happens because of THE BOYS IN THE BOAT!
The legendary boat-builder and philosopher of human nature George Pocock, provides a narrative for each chapter of THE BOYS IN THE BOAT : ” He came to understand how those almost mystical bonds of trust and affection, if nurtured correctly, might lift a crew above the ordinary sphere, transport it to a place where nine boys somehow become one thing-a thing that could not quite be 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. ”
Daniel James Brown: ” It occurred to me that when Hitler watched Joe and the boys fight their way back from the rear of the field to sweep ahead of Italy and Germany seventy-five years ago, he saw, but did not recognize, heralds of his own doom. He could not have known that one day hundreds of thousands of boys just like them, boys who shared their essential natures-decent and unassuming, not privileged or favored by anything in particular, just loyal, committed and perseverant- would return to Germany dressed in olive drab, hunting him down.”
I commend THE BOYS IN THE BOAT to the very top of your summer reading list. Buy it in hardcover because it belongs in your library for future generations. Also by Daniel James Brown, The Indifferent Stars Above and Under a Flaming Sky.