The Boys in the Boat is the amazing, true story of the team that won the gold medal in eight man crew at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It’s an inspirational story about hard work, resilience and perseverance set in the middle of the Great Depression and on the cusp of World War II.
The members of the team rowed together at the University of Washington, however The Boys in the Boat focuses mainly on one of the rowers, Joe Rantz. Joe is now one of my heroes. He endured tremendous hardship as a kid, including being abandoned by his family when he was 15 because they couldn’t afford to feed him. Joe survived on his own, foraging in the forest for food and doing various jobs to make a dime. He overcame these obstacles and finished high school, went to college, made it onto a nationally competitive rowing team, won an Olympic gold medal and went on to become a chemical engineer and create his own family, this one based on loyalty and love. Remarkable!
But Joe isn’t the only character we get to know. We also learn about the acerbic but brilliant coach, the clever coxswain, and the resident shell (boat) builder who takes a zen-like approach to rowing. It’s important to know these other characters because one of the points the author makes is that this crew was so great because of the unique combination of people, not because of one superstar.
Mr. Brown also includes important details about what is going on in the country and the rest of the world. This takes place during the depression, which is exasperated by the devastation of the dust bowl. This shapes who these rowers are and also how the public reacts to them (enthusiastically). Then the Olympic race is played out before the world on a fantasyland stage engineered Hitler and his minions. The cherry on top of this story is that these boys figuratively flipped Hitler a big old American bird at his own party by edging out the German team at the finish line. I especially liked that part.
Another thing that was really well done in The Boys in the Boat was the information provided about rowing. Mr. Brown explains the sport with a respect that borders on reverence. It provided me with a true appreciation for how hard these guys worked and how magical it must have been for them when they were in “swing”.
I absolutely loved The Boys in the Boat and enthusiastically recommend it. If you liked the book, too, and want to learn even more, PBS will be airing a documentary about this crew sometime this summer (August?). It’s called “The Boys of ’36”. I will definitely be watching.
I haven’t read much sports nonfiction. “Seabiscuit” is the only other one I can think of, and I really enjoyed it. What sports nonfiction do you recommend? Or just tell me what you thought of The Boys in the Boat.