The Boys in the Boat book review

I read The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown. The US crew team was made up of undergraduates from the University of Washington. Most of the oarsmen were from rough-cut families, sons of lumberjacks, farmers, and other laborers. The main focus was on rower Joe Rantz. As early as age 10, he was left by his parents to fend for himself. Joe had to split wood, illegally poach fish and steal alcohol, do janitorial and construction work, and do any other odd jobs he could find to support himself and pay for his tuition. So Joe’s story starts out with him being abandoned and alone, determining that he could trust no one but himself. But through crew, he learns to trust his teammates, finds a sense of belonging, and reconciles with his family and starts a family of his own. I don’t know anything about crew, but this book gave detailed, reverent, even spiritual descriptions of the sport. The author waxes on about the difficulty and precision required to be in sync, the need to be strong individually and yet subsume oneself to the team, the transcendental feeling of togetherness when the oarsmen move as one unit. The book culminates in the crew’s suspenseful come-from-behind victory in their gold medal race, overcoming an unfair start and bad lane position to become world champions. Interspersed in the story of the crew, there are tangents on the significance of the Olympics to Nazi Germany, the preparations and propaganda for the purpose of deceiving the world into believing that Hitler’s Reich was a powerful but benevolent force. The US crew’s victory is all the more meaningful knowing the global, historical context.

Oftentimes, the US crew team’s strategy was to start at a slow pace, then finish off the race with a sprint. Likewise, this book started off slow. So slow, in fact, that I read one chapter last year, then shelved the book out of boredom. But when I was back in Seattle, there the book was on the shelf, and I thought I’d give it another go. The book is descriptive, verbose to a fault. But as I read more and more chapters, it had me hooked. I developed an emotional connection to Joe and wanted to know what happened next, even though I knew from the book’s cover that the crew team would end up with Olympic gold. Their journey, their camaraderie— it was inspiring, something I wish everyone could have the opportunity to experience. And I was so impressed by the resolve the oarsmen showed in their lives, to succeed despite their modest upbringings.

I learned a bit of trivia too. For example, this week I drove on Royal Brougham Way, by Safeco Field. From the book, I learned that Royal Brougham was an enthusiastic Seattle sportswriter, and among the stories he covered was the University of Washington crew team’s ascent. I also happened to drive by Carnegie Lake this week, and I learned from the book that it was built so that Princeton’s crew could practice there instead of having to row in the Delaware and Raritan canal with all the commercial boats.

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