Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014.
“And which of them, coupled improbably with all those other qualities, had the most important one: the ability to disregard his own ambitions, to throw his ego over the gunwales, to leave it swirling in the wake of his shell, and to pull, not just for himself, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat.”
In 1933, Joe Rantz arrived at the University of Washington as a freshman with barely enough money to start school. There were no sports scholarships to be had, but earning a spot on the freshman rowing crew would guarantee him an on-campus job that would allow him to support himself through school. Under the tutelage of Tom Bolles, Al Ulbrickson, and boat builder George Pocock, Rantz would become one member of the nine man rowing crew that would represent the United States at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But on that first day, he was nothing more than one of 175 boys who hoped to earn a place in one of the freshman boats. There was a long road between those tryouts and the Berlin Olympics. The Boys in the Boat chronicles the training and formation of this historic crew.
Daniel James Brown centres his narrative on Joe Rantz, the man through whom he learned about America’s quest for gold at the 1936 Olympics, sometimes also known as the Nazi Olympics. The two were neighbours, and in the spring of 2007 Brown began interviewing Rantz, who was slowly dying of congestive heart failure. Rantz embodied the difference between the Husky rowing crew, and the crews produced by elite Eastern universities where rowing was considered a gentleman’s sport; he had grown up poor in various rural areas of Washington State, lost his mother at an early age, and had to work hard every summer to ensure he would have enough money to return to school in the fall. Rantz also provides a focal point for the book, introducing the reader to the world of rowing through his journey, before later bringing in the other team members.
After recounting Rantz’s difficult childhood and his introduction to rowing, Brown turns his attention to the coaching staff, including freshman coach Tom Bolles, and varsity and junior varsity coach Al Ulbrickson, himself a former University of Washington rower. However, the most interesting figure here is English boat builder George Pocock. Although not an official member of the coaching staff, Pocock, whose workshop was above the shell house, was another crucial mentor for the crew. The short but powerful stroke that had made Western rowing teams so successful was called Conibear stroke after former University of Washington rowing coach Hiram Conibear, but in fact it was Pocock who taught this stroke to Conibear. Pocock sold the highest quality rowing shells to any team that could afford them, but he made his home at the University of Washington, and the crew there benefited from his deep knowledge of the sport in addition to his equipment. Brown places an epigraph by Pocock at the beginning of each chapter, and his writing on the subject often verges on poetry, revealing his deep spiritual attachment to the sport, as well as his technical knowledge. By contrast, head coach Al Ulbrickson is a much more inscrutable figure.
Throughout The Boys in the Boat, Brown positions his narrative alongside historical context. As he follows Rantz’s trajectory on the UW rowing crew, he also touches on political events in Germany. The Nazis were rising to power just as Rantz began his university career, and as the team prepares for the Olympics, so Germany is preparing to host the world. The result was an unprecedented level of orchestration and ceremony that has remained with the Olympics ever since. Hitler was initially against the idea and principles of the Olympics, but Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels convinced him it would be “a singular opportunity to portray Germany to the world as a civilized and modern state, a friendly but powerful nation that the larger world would do well to recognize and respect.” Brown documents some of the measures that were taken to hide the extent of Germany’s anti-Semitic policies, such as removing party newspapers from the stands, taking down the signs that barred Jews from certain businesses, and preventing foreign journalists from interviewing Jewish people. He also emphasizes the role of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in documenting and propagandizing the occasion. However there is remarkably little about efforts to boycott the Berlin Olympics.
Although the outcome is known, Brown manages to maintain a remarkable degree of suspense. It is necessary to make us forget what we know, to remove the sense of inevitability that comes with our historical perspective, and take us back into the moment when things were by no means certain. It is not what happens, but how it happens that enables this trick. After overcoming their history of uneven performance, triumphing over Eastern snobbery about Western rowing crews, and arriving at the Olympic final, the American team still faced not one but two remarkable handicaps that make Brown’s account of the final race nail biting.
Even if you are not much interested in sports, the Olympics provide a unique perspective on the political situation in Germany in the lead up to World War II. Though sport receives greater emphasis than politics, Brown never loses sight of the world stage on which this competition is taking place, and the symbolic value that is being attached to it. The result is a unique fusion of sports and political history that has appealed to a wide variety of readers since the book was published in 2013.