The Boys in the Boat. By Daniel James Brown. (New York : Viking Adult, 2013. 416pp.)
Recommendation by Mary Paynton Schaff, Reference Librarian at the Washington State Library.
Once again the world’s best athletes have gathered to compete in the Olympic games, and television viewers can’t get enough. Standout personalities shine in the individual competitions like speed skating, skiing, and snowboarding. American broadcasts indulge in extended biographical features about our favorite competitors and their hometowns. It’s clear our society loves to celebrate individual accomplishment, and no wonder. To stand on the gold medal podium in triumph is no small feat.
But despite the celebrity of our individual winners, it’s the Olympic team sports that have the capacity to draw us in and capture the nationalistic pride like nothing else. For every Michelle Kwan, there’s a “Miracle on Ice.” For every Jesse Owens, there a University of Washington’s Eight Man Rowing Team.
You might be forgiven if in contemplating the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, your thoughts immediately go to Hitler’s Germany and the accomplishments of Owens. But after reading Daniel Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat,” your view will be considerably widened. 1936 was more than the dawn of the Third Reich and slide toward world war. It was the slogging end of the Great Depression, where thousands of young American men struggled to find work, put themselves through school, and hold their desperate families together. The Olympics were more than the city of Berlin, with its systematic white washing of Germany’s anti-Semitic laws. The Olympic story included rough and tumble logging towns like Sequim and Montesano, Depression-era boom towns like Grand Coulee, and gritty Northwest cities coming of age like Seattle. And Olympic athletes were more than solitary figures standing on a podium. They were teams of boys in boats.
Part of what makes Brown’s book so compelling is the exploration of what it means to be part of a rowing team. Who creates the team? Husky coaching icon Al Ulbrickson. Who makes the team? Joe Rantz, for one. Who inspires the team? Legendary boat builder George Pocock. What does it take to make a successful team? A comingling of found talent, hours of practice on Lake Washington in the pouring rain, healthy competition from your rival school the Cal Bears, and inspired leadership from your coach and brilliant coxswain Bobby Moch. And what does it feel like to be part of a winning team? The perfectly described notion of “swing,” which, when once accomplished with your fellow oarsman, allows you to fly across the water in perfect synchronicity.
“The Boys in the Boat” captures more than a moment in time. It paints the picture of the Northwest on the brink, balancing between the old-fashioned notion of the Wild West and the boom times of the 1940s. It depicts the ambition of the US Olympic committee members, who were determined to participate in the Olympics whether Jews were being persecuted in Germany or not (an attitude that may seem familiar even today). But more than anything, Brown’s book emphasizes the importance of teams and teamwork. For while all the boys felt like only a set of random circumstances landed them in that boat on the Langer See, their efforts not only defined them as adults, but also defined the Northwest as a center for athleticism, culture, and all-American can-do attitude.
Watch the 1936 Gold Medal Rowing race here.
Available at the Washington State Library NW 979.123 Brown 2013
Audio book available through the publisher.