by Clark Groome
Seemingly unrelated events – the rise of Nazi Germany, the Great Depression, several rural family stories, the emergence of the University of Washington as a hotbed of collegiate rowing and Washington’s rivalry with the University of California at Berkeley – combine to make Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat” an impressive and engaging sports/history book.
“The Boys in the Boat” (404 pages, Penguin Books just released in paperback, $17) tells the story of the nine men who made up the University of Washington crew that captured the country’s imagination and ultimately won the gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, much to Adolf Hitler’s great dismay.
Brown manages to craft a compelling narrative, intertwining the slow formation of the boat that would go on to glory in Berlin with the many personal stories of those involved with that quest.
As those elements unfold, there are several frightening passages on Hitler’s rise to power and how the preparations for the 1936 Games were all part of his plan to keep the world from knowing the horrors he was inflicting on Jews and other non-Aryans and his plans to conquer Europe.
Competitive rowing is one of the most physically demanding activities in sports. The demands it makes on both body and mind are excruciating. The will power and the selflessness it takes to perform at any level, let alone at the level at which the young men who are central to this story perform, is astonishing.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the book is its character studies of many of the men and women involved in the story, most notably rower Joe Rantz, his girlfriend and his family; Washington coach Al Ulbrickson and the British-born shell builder George Yeoman Pocock.
We also learn a lot about the Pacific Northwest during a period of great financial and meteorological trial. The early 1930s were not only the beginnings of the Great Depression – they were the time of the Dust Bowl and, in Washington State, the time of unpredictable weather that often made rowing problematic.
While this may sound like a lot of territory to cover, Brown has written a book that captures the multifaceted era that was at once heartbreakingly difficult and, at least for the nine members of the winning boat, unexpectedly triumphant.
Part of Brown’s brilliance is that he takes all those disparate elements and makes them into one story. He reports the many threads objectively and imbues them with the humanity and strength that the boys in the boat demonstrate while simultaneously capturing the horrors unfolding in Germany.
As part of the story’s context Brown makes reference to some nifty trivia, all of which adds to the story’s context. One such fact was that Seattle was at the top of the sports world in 1917 when the Seattle Metropolitans beat the Montreal Canadiens to be the first American team to win the Stanley Cup.
Another: In the year after the Olympics, the great Washington crew shared the media and the country’s attention with that other great surprise superstar, Seabiscuit.
Courage, dedication, patriotism, decency and skill are the elements that forged those college boys into the mature members of the Huskies’ 1936 crew. Those men, and the context in which they existed, make “The Boys in the Boat” an enlightening, entertaining and thrilling sports story that takes place at a critical time in history.