I have yet to hear of someone reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown and not absolutely loving it. In fact, I read it to meet my reading list criteria as a book recommended by someone with good taste in books. It is the story of the 1936 U.S. Olympic Rowing Team when they defeated the Germans in Berlin. The idea of beating the Germans at their own game just before the Second World War is thrilling in itself, but Brown adds a depth and heart to the book that brings it beyond the excitement of beating an enemy at the time.
This book is a classic underdog story, and winning the 1936 Olympic rowing event (which I was so excited about when I finally got to that part that I found the actual race footage on YouTube) is actually only a piece of the victories in this book. A mere sliver. There are so many more victories to be had in the stories of these boys that started out poor, from a poor area (the Pacific Northwest), at a poor time in history (The Great Depression), some with poor family support. This was the less privileged end of the United States, the end that was not considered to be serious competition for, of all things, crew. Even the weather was extreme at that time for the United States, both in winters and in summers, during the years where the boys were out rowing in it or trying to make money for the next school year. This book, as the cover states, its about a quest. It is about the means almost more than it is about the end.
Brown works hard in this well-researched novel to provide a context. The history of America and the history of Germany. The history of individuals involved in the story: George Pocock, the shell builder, Al Ulbrickson and Ky Ebright, coaches, the fierce and calculating coxswain Bobby Moch, each person that the main character (Joe Rantz) has some chance to get close to, his father Harry Rantz and his second wife Thula, his friends and the woman that he marries, as well as the main player’s in Adolf Hitler’s propaganda machine (bulldozer?), et cetera. Throughout these individual and varied personal histories woven through the story about the path to victory, one gets a real sense of what life was like for many people at that time in parts of the world.
Told through mostly the eyes and life events of one man, Joe Rantz, one gathers the strongest context for the times and hardships faced by many Americans at the time of the Depression. He is a part of some of Roosevelt’s social programs to make work during the depression and even meets some of Roosevelt’s family (at a time when one could just roll up to a president’s home, all casual like, and knock on the door. And be invited in.) It is not as unrelentingly depressing as The Grapes of Wrath, despite the fact that Joe struggles through most of the book to find safety and trust in others and to heal his first psychological scars while also struggling with destitution. Joe fights to overcome abandonment and poverty as America is trying to find footing again and Germany is posturing itself for war and the attempt at creating a master race. Joe gets just enough small victories along his way to be able to pull off his big one as a member of the winning Olympic rowing team. He rows in all the extreme colds of the winter, works in the extremes of the summer, just to get himself an education and to continue to be part of the crew team. In the other boys in his shell he finally finds the meaning of family, and allowing himself to trust in others to not be let down and truly function together as a unit, shaking his conviction that the only way he will get by in life is completely of his own merit.
These interwoven stories of histories, men and women, Americans and Germans, crazy weather, destitution and politics is not just about winning a serious athletic competition. It is about important personalities coming together at just the right time to make a family, and how try as we may to be independent, people are untethered without their personal contexts and only when they find their role and interdependence can greatness really be achieved. The Olympic victory is just one of so many victories on so many levels.
This is a nonfiction book that reads like a fiction book, and if your goal is to get through one nonfiction book this year, this should be it.