Book Club Review-The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown:  Book Club selection for October 10, 2013

blog by Cindy Bushey

Often people will reminisce nostalgically about days when “men were men.”  Zion’s readers recently took a trip down memory lane to a time when boys became men, forced to adopt adult responsibility far too early by circumstances beyond their control.  The troubles encountered along the way, the characters developed, the forging of men from the raw material of childhood who were then channeled along life’s path to come together as a team and achieve the acme of physical performance made for a gripping story – The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.

This account of the eight-man rowing team from the University of Washington who chased and won the Olympic gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics provided a window in time through the eyes of team member Joe Rantz.  Zion’s readers saw, perhaps more vividly than some ever had, the effects of poverty and economic despair during the Depression and Dust Bowl that swept the United States in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.  While the story focused on Joe’s life, the book also acted as a living history of times when families were ripped asunder as their basic foundations were shaken by world events.

Although some readers found the book slow with too much description and too little dialogue, our other readers could hardly put it down.  They eagerly returned to the story to see how Joe conquered the latest blow life threw him.   Author Daniel Brown divided his account into four parts with the first providing the background and history of Joe’s childhood. We met Joe’s parents, felt the pain of his mother’s early death, shared Joe’s shock and grief as he was sent to live on the east coast with an unfamiliar aunt.  Little did we know that the emotionally cold environment of his relative’s home was going to be one of the more stable times in his life!

After his return to his father’s household on the west coast, complete with a new, younger stepmother and soon siblings, our readers saw the first-hand effects of the Depression hit home.  With too many mouths to feed, too little money, and no job, Joe’s father is in an untenable position made more so by stepmother Thula’s aversion to Joe.  We were horrified as teen-aged Joe is left to fend completely for himself while the family drives away, but we were incredibly impressed with his tenacity and bravery as he supported himself with any job that came to hand and continued his education.  We could not comprehend abandoning one of our children in this manner, but it was all too commonplace at that time in history, long before all the social agencies which would become involved now were ever envisioned.

It is a wonder that Joe made it to the University of Washington and was introduced to the art of rowing at all!  Author Brown maintains the rowing theme throughout the book with pithy observations from George Pocock, carpenter extraordinaire and crafter of racing shells on the university campus, whose insightful musings can be applied not only to rowing but to life.  As the book moved through its second and third sections, we followed Joe through his attempts to make the team, the rigorous training required of rowers, the frustration of his coach as he worked to assemble just the right mix of athletes.  We marveled at the popularity of the sport at that time where it rivaled all other team sports.  Unfortunately, it is now a sidelight which viewers must search to find on obscure television channels.  However, the author kept our readers on the edge of their seats as the book moved through the grueling practices and the interactions between teammates.

Our readers rejoiced that Joe found a gem of a girl friend, Joyce, who stuck by him through thick and thin and eventually became his wife.  We also followed the happenings in Germany as that country geared up for perhaps the greatest propaganda show to ever take place on the world stage.  We met Hitler, Goebbels, and filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl and watched them orchestrate what they intended to be a showcase of Aryan superiority.  It was an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at history and a sporting competition more familiar to most of us as the time when Jesse Owens ran into the history books.

In the fourth section, our readers were privy to the elusive search for perfection for which every athlete strives but which, in team sports, has an added element of difficulty.  The focus has now narrowed to the Olympic competition, and Joe’s team is far from that consistent perfection.  The capriciousness of sport at the international level is also brought home as the team, having fought for and won the right to compete, must now raise the sum of $5,000.00 almost overnight in order to go to Europe.  Although that amount no longer seems large, it was almost beyond reach in the 1930’s.  The resourcefulness of the taciturn coach, and the outpouring of support is another of those wonderful feel-good moments in the book.

No greater contrast between that time and the present could be found than the humorous account of the team’s trek to the Hyde Park house of President Franklin Roosevelt.  Since the team was in the neighborhood for the Poughkeepsie competition, and the President was a fan of rowing, why not see if he was home?  So they knocked on the door and had a delightful visit with Franklin Junior as the President was not home.  Many readers commented on the difference today where bands of security surround public officials!

Finally, the team reaches Berlin.  We waited with bated breath as the description of the conditions, health problems among the team members, and attacks of nerves ratcheted up the tension.  How quintessentially American that the team chose to row in their old shorts and t-shirts rather than get their Olympic uniforms dirty!  For some of our readers, the account of that race and the team’s achievement of perfect symmetry of motion as the shell flew through the water at tremendous personal cost is storytelling at its best.

Although Joe Rantz passed away before the completion of this book, the author was able to meet with him and get his personal reflections as well as contributions from his family through memories and pictures that helped contribute to this well-rounded account.  It was also apparent how much diligent research on the author’s part added to this striking tale that resonated with all of Zion’s readers.  We had two readers who were neutral about the book, four who gave it one thumb up, and one who gave it two thumbs up.  We would not hesitate to recommend it to any reader of this blog who enjoys history and/or true stories of people who overcome great obstacles in their journeys through life.  There is even talk of a movie in the future!