Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

I hesitated to start this book as I wasn't sure a book about a rowing team in the 1930s would hold my attention.  But I should never have hesitated - I was so mesmerized by the descriptions of rowing races that I now look forward to watching the sport in the next Olympics.  Brown tells the story primarily from the perspective of Joe Rantz, one of the 9 members of the US rowing team that won Olympic gold in Berlin in 1936.  Joe had a hard childhood - his mother died when he was about 5, then he was shipped around between an aunt in the East, his brother near Seattle and finally, when his father remarried, his father and step mother in small town Washington State.  It was during the Depression and Rantz's family was dirt poor.  His father worked hard, never at the same job for long, and his step-mother gave birth to four children and was perpetually disappointed at her lot in life, which she took out on Joe.  Eventually, when he was 15, the family abandoned him in a half built house in Sequim Washington.  He not only continued to excel at school, but he earned enough money to go to University in Seattle.  He spent his last year of high school living with his brother in Seattle, where he was spotted by the coach of Washington's rowing crew and encouraged to try out.  He did so and made the Freshman team.  But he still struggled, he had little money; others made fun of him as he wore the same sweater every day and ate ferociously whenever given a free meal.  But eventually he made the varsity rowing team - and learned that to succeed he had to trust the others in the boat, and focus only on the boat during a race.
The book goes on to describe races in great detail - it sounds like it could get boring but Brown's writing style makes it suspenseful even when you know the outcome.  His interspersed story of what's going on in Hitler's Germany at the same time is also fascinating.  You get a really good picture of the propaganda machine at work during the Olympics - and the disappointment Hitler must have felt when this US crew won Gold even after being handicapped by the worst lane in the race (the best ones being reserved for Germany and Italy).
The epilogue briefly describing where the "boys in the boat" ended up after leaving school is also interesting.  A fabulous description of a small part of history.

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