Monday, February 23, 2015

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Title:  The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Author:  Daniel James Brown
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2013. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0143125478 / 978-0143125471

Book Source:  I read this book based on a friend's recommendation.

Opening Sentence:  "This book was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through wet woods to the modest house where Joe Rantz lay dying."

Favorite Quote:  "The boys in the Clipper had been winnowed down by punishing competition, and in the winnowing a kind of common character had issued forth: They were all skilled, they were all tough, they were all fiercely determined, but they were also all good-hearted. Every one of them had come from humble origins or been humbled by the ravages of the hard times in which they had grown up. Each in his own way, they had all learned that nothing could be taken for granted in life, that for all their strength and good looks and youth, forces were at work in the world that were greater than they. The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility - the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole - and humility was the common gateway through which they were able now to come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before."

I know nothing about rowing. I really don't have an interest in the sport. Yet, I chose to read this book  for two reasons. One is the recommendation of a friend, and second is the fact that this team competed in the same Olympic games as Louis Zamperini, the athlete about whom Unbroken was written. I wanted to see how the history intersects. This book, like Unbroken, has also been optioned for a movie.

If you read the cover copy of the book, you know how it ends. One book description reads, "The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936." (from GoodReads)

This description hits upon the two threads of this story - the fact that these athletes came from a lower, middle class background. They struggled financially, the struggle made all the worse by the reality of the Depression. The other thread of the story, of course, is that of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the presentation of the 1936 Olympic games as a way to put forth a non-threatening image of Germany.

This book weaves a story centered around the life of Joe Rantz - one of the boys in the boat. He grows up in a poor household, neglected and even abandoned. He learns to survive, mostly on his own. His experiences leave him sad but not bitter. Once asked why, he replied, "It takes energy to get angry. It eats you up inside. I can't waste my energy like that and expect to get ahead. When they left, it took everything I had in me just to survive. Now I have to stay focused. I've just gotta take care of it myself."

Perhaps, those experiences teach him resilience and perseverance, no matter what the circumstances. He arrives at the University of Washington, needing a scholarship to stay. A spot on the rowing team becomes a way to to stay in school. So, the struggle to survive continues - both in school and on the river. Slowly, the dream of competition starts to take hold. Slowly, the camaraderie of a team begins to build.

Standing with Joe always is Joyce, the love of his life. Surrounding Joe are his teammates, boys like him, determined and competitive. Around them is the circle of coaches and mentors. Around them is the rowing community of fierce but respectful rivals. Around them is the United States, struggling through the Depression but rallying around their athletes of the Olympic Games. Around them is the circle of world events, especially the growing power of Germany, the Olympic hosts in 1936. Through the story of one young man, this book relates the story of the world in the years leading up to World War II. The story is at once intensely personal and global.

This nonfiction book relates history in a beautifully readable narrative. Even though I knew how it ended, I was riveted. Maybe, he wouldn't make the team...maybe, they wouldn't win the Olympic spot...maybe, they wouldn't win the race. Logic gave me the answer, but the writing kept me on the edge of my seat. I never had an interest in rowing, nor do I really have one now; but, for the 400 pages of this book, I turned into an avid fan.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

No comments:

Post a Comment