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Northwest Reads from University Book Store: "Boys in the Boat," by Daniel James Brown

Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat” chronicles how nine rough-and-tumble UW rowers from lumber towns, mining camps and fishing boats overcame poverty, illness and self-doubt to win gold under the rapacious gaze of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
"The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics" by Daniel James Brown. Viking Press.

Northwest Reads from University Book Store reviews the works of Northwest authors and is a recurring column in the News of Mill Creek written by expert University Book Store booksellers.

By Joe Garvin, University Book Store book expert.

Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat” chronicles how nine rough-and-tumble UW rowers from lumber towns, mining camps and fishing boats overcame poverty, illness and self-doubt to win gold under the rapacious gaze of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Clearly, the subtitle’s “epic quest” is no mere rhetorical flourish. The underdogs from Seattle, lacking the pedigree of the East Coast elite, ultimately earned this region worldwide attention for one of the first times ever. Yet this incredible tale is rarely told, except on the University campus: the gold-winning 1936 shell, Husky Clipper, hangs over the dining commons of the new Conibear Shellhouse.

Brown researched for three years before writing the book - studying personal journals of the rowers as well as ample press coverage (rowing’s popularity at the time was comparable to today’s college basketball and football). The Redmond-based author also spoke at length with one of the original oarsmen, Joe Rantz, whose vivid recollections inspired the project. Rantz, who figures as the saga’s emotional center, sadly passed away only ten months later. His daughter Judy Willman took over and collaborated with Brown.

Abandoned as a baby at the onset of the Great Depression and dogged by lifelong penury, Rantz finds himself an outcast even among his teammates. His particular trials come to mirror those of the team as a whole, who nevertheless pulls off a series of increasingly unlikely victories: first over major rival University of California at Berkeley, eventually over the much-favored British crew in a qualifying Olympic heat (breaking the world record in the process).

Ever-watchful from the shore stands taciturn head coach Al Ulbrickson, as well as George Yeoman Pocock, the eccentric boat-builder whose quasi-mystical pearls of wisdom preface each chapter. These epigraphs, such as “the skilled oarsman must become part of his boat,” and “it isn’t enough for the muscles of the crew to work in unison; their hearts and mind must also be one,” beg the voiceover talents of Morgan Freeman.

Like a skillful rower in a long race, Daniel James Brown saves his strongest efforts for the finish. His riveting description of the 1936 Berlin Olympics tugs taught anticipatory suspense. Top Nazi officials such as Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring preside over throngs of swastika-clad youth, keenly expecting their German crew to illustrate its racial superiority in the premier rowing event. For the climactic race itself, Brown effectively slows down time and shifts to a breathless, beat-to-beat style as it comes down to the final several strokes against the Germans and Italians.

It’s “Seabiscuit” with oars, or “Chariots of Fire” with Nazi villains. In fact, if this populist Depression-era tearjerker smacks of Hollywood to you, you won’t have to wait long: the Weinstein brothers already won a fierce bidding war for the film rights. Kenneth Branagh is slated to direct.

Brown shows a special gift for taking raw fragments of history and painting the drama of real people’s lives with cinematic, transportive prose. But The Boys in the Boat also offers a richly detailed social context of Depression-era America, as well as fascinating interludes of arcane rowing lore and ritual. Even for those who typically balk at sports epics or nonfiction altogether, this is an enthralling and inspiring book - quite simply, as Twain put it, “a good story well told.”

"The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics" by Daniel James Brown. Viking Press.

Joe Garvin is a freelance writer and member of the Events Staff at University Book Store.

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