I conclude my two week look at some of the best books on the Olympics that have been published in the last few years and this is my fourth book about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. (To see all the books on the Olympics that I’ve covered, click here. Some months ago, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Amazon) was on sale on the Kindle so I bought it along with the audible narration by Edward Hermann. I went back and forth from audio to Kindle because I did not want to put this book down!
“Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. 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.
The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard and to find a place he can call home. The crew is assembled by an enigmatic coach and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat builder, but it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. They remind the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together—a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism.
Drawing on the boys’ own diaries and journals, their photos and memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, The Boys in the Boat is an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate story of nine working-class boys from the American west who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really meant.”
Seriously, I could barely tell you anything about rowing before I got ahold of this book. I knew that Grace Kelly’s dad and brother competed in the Olympics in rowing, and at the Tokyo Olympics this year, there was a women’s rower from Neenah, Wisconsin, which is about 40 minutes from where I live and saw a piece profiling her on a local TV station (you can see that piece here; sadly, her team did not medal). And really, that’s the great thing about The Boys in the Boat: you do not need to know anything about rowing or anything about the Olympics for that matter to enjoy this book.
Daniel James Brown’s prose brought to life by Edward Hermann reminded me so much of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit (Amazon), which was the book that made me fall in love with audiobooks. This is the story of the underdog, the crew that no one thought was any good because they were from the University of Washington and not some elite east coast school.
But the story centers especially on Joe Rantz, who was essentially abandoned by his father after his mother died. His older brother Fred and his wife took him in for a while, until Joe’s father comes back and marries his son’s sister-in-law. They ended up moving to Spokane, Washington for work. Joe’s half brothers Mike and Harry Jr. come along soon after and with no work in Spokane, Harry Sr. left his family behind and went back to work in Idaho.
Then the house burned down, but everyone got out safely. So Harry Sr. moved the family to the mining town in Idaho where he had been working. Tula, the stepmother, insists that Joe gets kicked out of the house because she can’t handle one more child. Harry Sr. agrees. Joe was ten years old at the time.
Somehow Joe makes it to adulthood, spending time with his older brother, Fred, and eventually sleeping at the YMCA. And one day, he meets a crusty old rowing coach who thinks the boy is something special. This coach would go on to assemble a team that consisted of young men who were from hard-working lower class families, who would go on to compete with the country’s upper crust elite families on both the west and east coast.
The story is also one of a British boat builder, and how he fine-tuned his making of “shells” as they are called, who makes his way to Vancouver and is discovered by the coach, and immediately orders boats, as many as fifty but no less than twelve (it turns out he only had enough money for one). All the details of how to build a shell, right down to the wood selection and how much sanding had to be done, are covered, but believe it or not, it’s not boring at all!
Once Daniel James Brown expertly explains what makes good rowing (the development of the Connabear(sp?) stroke changed the game) and how important a position the coxswain is to the sport, there’s a history of rowing competitions on the collegiate level. And it’s clear from that information that the team from the University of Washington should not/could not have been the ones to win a trip to the Olympics. Yet they did.
The trip to Berlin and the subsequent games are also covered thoroughly. I never thought I could become so invested in a sport for which I had little knowledge, nor would I care about normally, changed with this book. This against the odds story is one not to be missed.!
This is the 54th Audiobook I’ve listened to as part of my 2021 Audiobook Challenge.
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Boys in the Boat is an awesome book.Watching a couple documentaries about Germany in the 1936 era, before or after reading the book, helps give more context to the world then and now.
It’s interesting, in my other readings and watching of documentaries of the time, how there were many people vocal about Hitler’s regime, especially Winston Churchill, who was out of power at the time and almost every other member of Parliament thought he was crazy. And in America, the black newspapers were quick to point out the hypocrisy. In school growing up, we were always given the impression that when German invaded Poland and France, it was some big surprise.
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