The Boys In The Boat: Nine Americans And Their Epic Quest For Gold At The 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown
Spoiler alert: They got the gold. This book is the sort of work that purports to be more than it is. It is, to be sure, the story of the University of Washington crew team that stormed to victory in Berlin 1936 and their struggles and adversity. However, the book as a whole focuses on only a few people, and is basically told from the point of view (mostly) of Joe Rantz. The book has a strong populist tone, and one can see from its pages as well the sort of corruption that the Olympics and that athletic competition has in general, as the setup of the lanes in the final of the 1936 Olympics (and not only there) is particularly and egregiously corrupt. If Joe Rantz is a sympathetic figure, an abandoned child who struggles (not unreasonably) with trust issues, the Germans come off here as decidedly unsympathetic, and the author shows himself as having a clear ax to grind when it came to the question of anti-Semitism even within the United States and with the question as to whether a boycott of the 1936 Olympics would have been a good thing.
This is a book that at least is honest about its selectivity, beginning with the story of how the author became aware of the 1936 American Olympic rowing team through an interview with the dying Joe Rantz, and then moving back to discuss his own early childhood experience involving the death of his mother, the cruelty of his fairy-tale stepmother, and his own efforts to save money for college at the University of Washington. The author then talks about the resiliency shown by the boys in the Freshman crew who ended up winning glory first against Cal and then nationwide. The author discusses the ups and downs of the team during their sophomore year and the way that they infuriated their coach with their uneven performance. After that the author discusses the glory that was won by the UW varsity team in winning against Cal, winning the national championships (of sorts) at Poughkeepsie, then winning the Olympic trials and then winning Olympic gold. As there are not many races to discusses, the author talks a lot about the work, socialization, and politics of sport in both Germany and the United States, explicitly tying the experience of the rowers to underdogs like the famous Seabiscuit and to Olympians like the noted Zamperini who have appeared in previous works of this kind. The book ends with a short epilogue that discusses the future of the various people discussed.
Is this a great book? It’s not necessarily a groundbreaking work. It is an enjoyable read if you happen to like reading about underdog athletes. I’m not a particular fan of the University of Washington and not a particular fan of crew, but the story does have an appealing center in a motherless child who longs for wholeness and an honorable place in the world. He happens to be a generally decent person, who finds out that his friends and fellow crew team members have the same sorts of problems–the talented coxswain Bobby Moch ends up finding out he is Jewish just before going to Germany, Joe ends up finding out that one of his fellow crew members is a janitor as well to pay the bills and that two of his fellow rowers were willing to work at Grand Coulee Dam to pay for college, all of which tends to lead to a certain populist appeal. The author subtly, and perhaps unknowingly, connects the public works efforts of FDR with those of Hitler, and the community of crew as a whole is shown to be somewhat elitist and also a very small world of private grudges and complex coaching trees. All of this the author manages to make interesting and compelling, which is a significant achievement.