By Daniel James Brown
Every once in a while I come across a book that is especially good. This is one of them. Recently I was speaking with a renowned English professor at Rice University, who is also a big sports fan. He excitedly told me about a book on rowing, The Boys in the Boat, the true story of nine boys from the University of Washington crew team defeating vaunted East Coast teams in the 1930s and then going on to win Olympic gold at Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. This is a remarkable story.
This is not only the story of an epic quest for the gold medal, it is the story of nine boys coming together and being skillfully melded together as a team. It is the story of the pain and heartache of the Depression Era American life, and the menace of Nazism rising in 1930s Germany. It is also the story of the beauty and poetry of rowing, a sport that I have no background in.
The story focuses on one of the nine boys, Joe Rantz, and the difficulties he had growing up. He lost his mother early. His step-mother did not treat him well and eventually insisted that he live on his own beginning at age 15. It is the story of rejection by a family, but yet he never gives up and he works hard to get a college education and to get a decent job. It is also the story of Joe falling in love with his high school sweetheart and their eventual marriage.
Rowing is apparently a grueling sport. The UW crew endured tenacious workouts in all kinds of weather in the Pacific Northwest. They had their ups and downs. They had their struggles. But they were relentless in their quest and they eventually brought encouragement not only to their entire university, but to the entire city of Seattle and indeed, the whole country. This is a superb and riveting tale.