Monday, April 14, 2014

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

Viking, 2013
404 pp


"They weren't just nine guys in a boat; they were a crew."

Considering that I'm not at all a sports person, it seems odd that I would even be reading a book about the University of Washington crew team.  I didn't know what to expect, but after reading the first chapter I was totally hooked.  It only got better from there.

It's probably a given that almost everyone is familiar with the fact that at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, Jesse Owens walked away with four gold medals, throwing the Nazi ideal of the Aryan supremacy right back in Hitler's face. Another thing about that year's Olympic games that most people are familiar with is the call for a boycott of the games, as rumors were circulating about what was really going on in Germany and the repressive measures of the Nazis. But it's very unlikely that anyone other than sports historians or people who are really into the history of the Olympic games know about the crew team from the University of Washington who literally battled the odds and not only made it to the games, but went on to win the gold medal.  The Boys in the Boat not only takes the readers through the crew's efforts in getting there, but also goes into great depth about the crew members, especially the central figure in this book, Joe Rantz.  His story lies at the heart of this book, but the author also includes stories about the other members of the team, a look at the Depression in the US, and what was going on in Germany at the time. He also examines the sport of crewing itself -- especially the prominence of the teams from elite Ivy League universities.  As he notes, "the center of gravity in American collegiate rowing still lay somewhere between Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, Ithaca, and Annapolis."

Joe's story is the best part of this book.  As an infant, his mother died and his father remarried a much younger woman who for some reason didn't get along with Joe, especially after she and Joe's father started having their own children. At age ten, Joe was told that he wouldn't be living with the family any longer, and he watched as they took off in a car for somewhere unknown.  He pretty much had to fend for himself although a few people stepped up and helped him out. Joe was always good at school, and his older brother offered to take him in during his last high school year so that he would have a good shot at entering a good university, and he was accepted by UW, where he made it into one of the crew boats as a freshman. However, as a poor student in the university's "world of pressed trousers, of briar pipes and cardigan sweaters,"  Joe had to work for every penny he needed to stay in school, and he was often the target of students much more fortunate than himself.  However, some of the students who looked down on Joe had to eat crow as  they tried and failed at the crew team tryouts,  leaving mainly the sturdy farm boys to take the seats in the boat.  Crewing was not easy and there were a number of  mental factors keeping Joe from reaching his absolute best, but with the help of  some brilliant mentoring from the coaches, wisdom from the man whose boats were prized throughout the crewing world, support from an entire city and for Joe, the love of a good woman, he was able to surmount all of his obstacles and go on to become part of an extremely devoted team.

It's already known in the prologue that Joe and his team went on to win a gold medal in the Olympics, but it's the getting there that creates the drama and tension in this book. The way this story is put together is creative  and keeps the reader beyond interested. The author splits scenes between Joe's story, the effects of the Depression in America, what was going on in Nazi Germany and the leaders'  goal to create a fake reality for the rest of the world to see for PR purposes, the sport of crewing, and the team's story.  When all are combined all of these elements  not only firmly situate the book in historical time and place, but also make the reading much more rounded and compelling.

I have to say that I probably wouldn't have bought this book had it not been for an online reader friend who raved about it (thanks, Trish),  and that would have been a shame. There's only a couple of niggly things that I didn't care for. First comes the gushing descriptions of love between Joe and Joyce (okay -- we get it -- but not every time), and there was one spot when the team went to Poughkeepsie (p. 257) and the author notes the following in talking about where they were staying:
"In command of the cookhouse was the imposing figure of Evanda May Calimar, a lady of color and, as it would turn out, an awe-inspiring cook."
The fact that the cook was "a lady of color" has absolutely zero bearing on anything here at all. This kind of usage is one of my all-time biggest pet peeves that really rankles.  But in the big scheme of things, looking at the overall picture, I was really into this book, the research was extremely impressive, and The Boys in the Boat turned out to be one of the best reads of this year for me.  I've added it to the book group lineup to fill November's slot.   I HIGHLY recommend this book -- it's so good that I hated every second I wasn't reading it.

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