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Book Review of The Boys in the Boat, Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
A Surprising Selection
At our last monthly meeting of our book club in May (We don't meet during the summer.) our members are asked to submit their book choices for a list that will be voted upon for book club for the next year. The only requirement is that they have actually read the book they submitt and to be prepared to answer questions about their choice. One of the suggestions was The Boys in the Boat, Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. The member who suggested this book, hates sports. All sports; so I questioned her about her strange choice. She responded by saying that the desire to win which was very unlikely, reminded her a lot of Seabiscuit which was the inspirational best seller about the racehorse. While the book is a historical biography, it reads like fiction, and the struggle of the young men during the Great Depression learning the sport of Varsity crew at the University of Washington. The book is also about their coach and the man who lovingly crafted the shells that the young men from all over America competed in.
The book is also very personal as we follow the team members, mainly Joe Rantz, through his struggle for daily survival after his family abandons him at age 15 because they can't afford another mouth to feed and his step-mother has a deep resentment of him. Feeling sorry for himself isn't an option. Always hungry, Joe forages for food, poaches salmon, and takes odd jobs. Many of the other young men who want to be members of the crew team have faced similar experiences.
Set in Seattle, the reader learns about what the crew team means to their community and the lengths they will go to support them. Given the variety of sports today that a viewer could watch literally 24 hours daily, it's difficult to imagine the excitement that the rowing teams generated. Finally, the setting is in the new Olympic complex in Berlin that was built under the Nazi government. Berlin has been whitewashed and scrubbed, but the reader learns that the river that the crew teams row on has already been tainted with innocent blood.
The reader already knows that the boys from Seattle will win, but my oh my what a journey!
The Basics of Crew Rowing
Before reading The Boys in the Boat, I confess that the only time I had ever watched the sport was brief clips on television and brief scenes in films. A crew team consists of eight rowers and a coxswain. The book explains the "mechanics" of each rower's position in the boat, and how the coxswain controls the stroke count and therefore the pace at which the boat speeds up when called to do so, but also slows the stroke count to allow the rowers enough energy to surge ahead when needed. The rowers must be in sync with the rowers in front of and behind them. One misplaced stroke could cost the crew a precious second which could win or lose the race. The rowers are given the mantra of MIB (Mind in Boat) which helps a team to block all other thoughts and worries from their minds except that moment of rowing in the boat.
The training for Crew required many hours of rowing in all sorts of winter and summer storms. Conditioning their bodies, maintaining a diet, no smoking, no drinking, maintaining their grade average, holding a part time job during the school year and a full time job that would pay their tuition for the next school year. One interesting chapter describes Joe's dangerous job working on the Grand Coulee Dam one summer.
Watching A Crew Race
Have you ever watched a Crew race?
Coaching and Fans
During the years leading up to the Olympics, there were three levels of crew at the University of Washington: Freshman, Jr Varsity and Varsity. One of the coaching philosophies at the time was to keep changing who the Varsity team was. For example a sophomore could row with the senior members, but could be sent back to Jr Varsity the next race, and seniors who should have been Varsity, could be sent down to Jr Varsity. On one level the positions were given according to merit each week, but the team members were always worried about their status and insecure. Whatever the philosophy, the end result was a gold medal.
It's hard to imagine how many fans the sport attracted in the 1930s and the amount of press and radio coverage devoted to it. One of the most surprising facts in Boys in the Boat was the fact that after they had won the American championship, there wasn't any money to send any of the athletes to the Olympics and they were required to pay for their passage on the ship and for many of their personal expenses. The people of Seattle were so proud of their team they managed to raise the money. While some businesses were able to donate $50-$100, the town sold support tags for $.50 each and the money was raised.
The Olympics and Epilogue
The descriptions of the passage on the S S Manhattan the the arrival in Germany is interesting. It seems Hitler had demanded absolute perfection in building the complex, and controlling every aspect of the treatment of the Olympians. He repeatedly said he needed to prove how progressive and ideal the Nazi government was right down to the details of filming all aspects of the Olympics using the newest rolling camera techniques. While the descriptions from the team present friendly people and a willingness to appreciate the Olympians and their fans, history before the 1936 Olympics and after the games was grim. The writer manages to bring in personal details that make the account so readable. When the German crew was beaten by the Crew from Washington, Hitler walked off the podium along with his officers in disgust. He refused to speak.
Following the Olympics the reader learns what happened to the crew team and coaches and others related to the boys.The book succeeds because of all the personal stories of the team. History in context makes great reading.