Nine men in one boat achieve a lasting legacy. If The Boys in the Boat were to be summarized in one sentence that would be it.
The Boys in the Boat follows the nine students of the University of Washington who won the gold medal in rowing at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. Beginning with their first days in a boat to their victory, The Boys in the Boat marks a notable, but often forgotten, moment in history.
A People’s History
Daniel James Brown attributes the genesis of this book to an interview with Joe Rantz, one of the rowers. It was clear that Joe’s rowing story would make a great book, but Joe wanted the story to be more. Brown recounts, “he [Joe] admonished me gently.” The book had to be about the ethereal concept “the boat.”
“The boat,” in Brown’s words, “was a shared experience.” It encompasses the nine boys, the struggle to reach the Olympics, the fated race, but also “something mysterious and almost beyond definition.” It is this transcendent spirit of common struggle and solidarity that connects this specific moment in time to the larger history of Seattle and the United States.
Although Brown spends a lot of time developing Joe Rantz as a figure through the tale of his heartbreaking childhood, The Boys in the Boat never feels like a biography. Brown beautifully weaves together the history of the Great Depression, the nine boys, Seattle, Nazi Germany and American rowing. The tapestry of these different narratives seamlessly tells a story of camaraderie, achievement, and survival in its basest form.
The wood, Pocock murmured, taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty…
As Joe Rantz and his teammates endeavor to make it to the Olympic games (beating California and the Eastern Ivies in the process), they also battle hunger and exhaustion as the Great Depression exacts its price. It is all some of the boys can do to have enough money to stay in college. But it is through these trials, as individuals and a community, that the boys come to represent something greater than themselves — the triumph of the will.
Unlike Hitler’s 1935 carefully orchestrated propaganda film, this triumph of the will was an organically formed spirit of solidarity. The boys, sweating and straining their muscles for years, developed a bond of complete trust. Yet, the bond transcended the team. Their efforts gave the previously unknown University of Washington and Seattle notoriety, unifying the city and the state. Then, as the American team, the boys in the boat represented the spirit of a nation striving to overcome a devastating economy. In the end, the boys’ triumph of the will symbolized the history of the American people in the 1930s.
It takes a strong author to recognize when he does not have the words to properly express a sentiment. Brown, in his use of quotations, epitomizes this writing talent.
At the beginning of every chapter a quotation of George Pocock sets the tone. George Pocock, an English shell maker, was the resident wise-man in the University of Washington’s boathouse. Although he crafted boats for numerous rowing teams, his critical insights were reserved for the Washington team.
Pocock did more than offer coaching advice. His words communicated the spirituality of the sport. Through Pocock the reader learns of the beauty, mystery and exhausting nature of rowing. In one quotation, Pocock expresses the theme of solidarity that Brown captures in the book’s narrative. “Where is the spiritual value of rowing?…The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole.”
Perhaps the best quotation from Pocock comes during a scene in the book rather than at the heading of a chapter. Pocock illustrates the significance of nine boys working to achieve a gold medal through a description of the wood in the shells.
“The wood, Pocock murmured, taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves. About the reasons we were all here.”
History Comes To Life
On occasion there is a book that is difficult to describe because words cannot capture its wonder. The Boys in the Boat is one such book. Daniel James Brown masterfully relates the story of nine boys, a university, a city and a nation in 375 pages.
Through vivid descriptions, in-depth research, and photographs the story of the 1936 gold medal Olympic rowing team comes to life. The Boys in the Boat is a must read for history lovers and sports enthusiasts alike. Daniel James Brown never lets the reader forget how legendary this moment in time is and, given the hard work of everyone involved, it’s an event that should not remain in the shadows.
Have you read The Boys in the Boat? What did you think?