THE BOYS IN THE BOAT, by Daniel James Brown

Brown’s robust book tells the irresistible story of the University of Washington’s rowing team and their epic quest for a gold medal in the 1936 Olympics. I must admit that, before starting on the book, I was a little skeptical, primarily because I didn’t think there was much to rowing—a little arm exercise pretty much summed it up for me. You know what Mark Twain said about golf—a good walk ruined.  Well, I thought rowing was a good paddle ruined…

And, while the book itself could be a little plodding early on, perhaps providing too much detail for me, I did come to enjoy it very much, particularly when Brown described an early race, I could feel the splash of the oars. More important, perhaps, I learned that rowing is a very complicated, precise, and interesting sport that, contrary to my previous view, uses practically every muscle. It became clear that readers do not need an interest in competitive rowing to be captivated by this remarkably crafted history.

Brown offers a vivid picture of the relentlessly demanding effort of the rowers and the precision that goes into the making of a first-class boat. Mentored not just by visionary Coach Al Ulbrickson, but by the genius of eccentric boat-builder George Pocock, the teammates learned to trust themselves and to row with grace, unmatched precision, and power. Their collective result was perfection, as was the book by Brown.

At the heart of the book is a heart-warming story of Joe Rantz, who was abandoned by his father — left to fend for himself at a very young age, but who as a resourceful teenager won back his dignity to become an ideal hero by employing his determination to overcome the odds. Neither he, nor his team was ever expected to defeat the elite teams on the east coast, nor to have the opportunity to go on to shock the world by defeating the Germans in front of Adolf Hitler.

More than just a sports story, Boys in the Boat is a fascinating work of history. The reader gets a vivid picture of the depression era, the building of the Grand Coulee dam (where Joe worked during the summer to earn tuition money), the dust bowl, Hitler’s rise to power—all culminating in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. I was reminded somewhat of Bill Bryson’s One Summer, which similarly covered a variety of momentous events during the summer of 1927.

I also enjoyed reading about Leni Riefenstahl, the genius who directed Hitler’s propaganda films for the world, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, which won many awards. And I really enjoyed the conversations our book club had over a three-week period. I believe we all came away with a deep appreciation for the sport, and Karen Lynch’s added perspective as a coxswain for and member of the University of Iowa rowing team put the icing on the cake.

“Harmony, balance, rhythm; A symphony of motion,” said the legendary designer of racing shells George Pocock. “There you have it. That’s what life is all about.” And that’s what this book is all about.—Ken Johnson

NOTE: An episode of PBS’s American Experience was based on the book, titled The Boys of  ’36. You can livestream it through them or Netflix.

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