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Book Review - The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (2013)

By Edited Apr 15, 2016 1 0

The author of this true story is not to be confused with Daniel Brown, author of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons.” It is an entirely different genre, a riveting account of the 1936 Berlin Olympics where the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew made their quest forglory and immortality.


Olympic Flag

                                                                          Olympic Flag

Using the story of Joe Rantz, one of the crew, as a backdrop, author Brown notes that these nine college students (including the coxswain) were the sons of farmers, loggers and shipyard workers, who had never traveled farther than their home state of Washington before 1936.

Joe Rantz had a most difficult life, having been ejected from his home as a young adolescent by his father’s second wife who wanted no remembrance of her husband’s first marriage in their home. Joe learned from this never to depend on anyone but himself. He took any job that was available during those depression days to attend the University of Washington. Being chosen as a member of the varsity crew meant that his tuition would be taken care of. Joe had a faithful friend in his girlfriend Joyce Simdars, who was determined that Joe would never again feel bereft of love as he had experienced within his own family.

Daniel James Brown writes this story in such a spellbinding manner that it flows easily for the reader who is captivated from page one. It is not chick lit, but as a woman, I was enthralled with the tale of these nine young men who bonded together to seek their place in sports history.

It is also the story of George Pocock, who fashioned the shells from cedar, to become the most famous boat builder of that time. George not only built boats; he built men, as he frequently advised the crew concerning his own love for the sport and what was necessary for success in this grueling, painful, exhausting, quest to bring their boat in first against well-known college champions of the sport.

Brown’s description of the crew’s preparation is meticulous. The reader learns what it takes to bring about the harmony and coordination that is required of the eight crew members and their coxswain who gave the orders when to push ahead or lay back. He calls it the “swing” when they are all perfectly synchronized in their movements, an almost religious experience for them.

Al Ulbrickson, their varsity coach, knew that he had a special group of rowers, and quietly prepared them and himself for the possibility of rowing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Their preparation included competition against the University of California at Berkeley, who had twice before won the Olympic Gold Medal in Rowing. Tournaments in Seattle, Poughkeepsie, and New York added to their preparation and their coalescence into a team that was unbeatable. Still, they were confronted with slumps and illnesses in several of the oarsmen. The reader is nervous when Coach Ulbrickson rethinks his choices and contemplates substituting other rowers.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin is known even more so because of Jesse Owens who won four gold medals in track and field that year to the consternation of Adolph Hitler, who was adamant about the superiority of the Arian race. That year also saw in Berlin the capability of Louie Zamperini, track star, whose life is the subject of the book and movie entitled “Unbroken.”


Adolph Hitler

                                                                          Adolph Hitler

Daniel James Brown has a gift for narrative and also brings in parallel events to set the stage for readers who may remember the depression years and can relate to the times. His research took years during which he interviewed family members of the crew, in particular Joe Rantz’ daughter, Judy Willman, who spent hours with Brown going over letters, documents and newspaper clippings about the Boys in the Boat.

Tension is built up on the day of the race in Berlin when the stroke oarsman, Don Hume, came down with a serious bronchial infection which could affect his productivity. Also, the American team was given the worst lane, putting them in the path of severe crosswinds. Throughout the race, the crowd of course cheered wildly for Germany, their main competition along with Italy, both of which had more advantageous lanes.

I have never been more taken with a book than I was with “The Boys in the Boat.” It was an experience which took me wholly into the setting without realizing that it was happening. Understandably, a film version of “The Boys in the Boat” is underway, and will surely capture the attention of all, whether or not you are familiar with the sport of rowing. At the end of the book, you will know all there is to know about eight-oar crews and what they experience, both physically and spiritually.



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