Book review: ‘The Boys in the Boat,’ by Daniel James Brown
Special to the Daily
The stock market crash of 1929 marked the beginning of a turbulent era for a world still on edge after the ravages of World War I and the subsequent overindulgences of the Roaring Twenties. As the realities of economic turmoil began to sink in, the first inklings of what would become the Great Depression surfaced. With the splendid sheen of the Age of Jazz starting to tarnish, Americans began to long for some glimmers of the lifestyle they had left behind as their money dissolved into the ether of the collapse.
Nine working-class young men, the sons of West Coast loggers, fisherman and farmers, dared to dream big in a time when the hopes of a nation were blowing away with the choking clouds of the Dust Bowl. In his captivating new book, “The Boys in the Boat,” author Daniel James Brown brings to life the epic story of the University of Washington crew team that stunned and revived a nation with their loyalty to one another and their dedication to their ultimate goal, which was to skim the fastest, most elegant crease through the armor of Hitler’s propaganda smoke screen at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Desperate for some normalcy in a world gone mad, the Berlin Olympics was a shining moment for Americans, as their homegrown best and strongest succeeded in showing to the world. Jesse Owens, the most decorated athlete of the Games that year, won four gold medals, fittingly mocking the doctrine of hatred and bigotry that encapsulated Hitler’s push for a New World Order founded on his warped concept of human perfection, personified in his idea of the Aryan ideal.
Less well know than Owens, but equally inspiring, was the University of Washington’s tightly knit varsity team of rowers, who had battled their way through several years of tough athletic competition and economic hardships, not to mention their own personal life challenges, to win the opportunity to compete on the world stage. Brown deftly guides the reader through the vivid landscape of the Depression, the backdrop against which these young athletes came of age.
Anchoring his narrative is Joe Rantz, a member of the famed crew of nine. Rantz becomes the center spoke around which Brown builds his story, and with masterful skill, he weaves in world events, as well as political figures of such enormity and influence as Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt and, of course, Hitler and his master manipulator, the maniacal Joseph Goebbels, the man who was pivotal in the great feat of deception that Germany succeeded in achieving.
Beginning in 1933, with Rantz’s freshman class, Brown paints a grim setting, with Seattle reeling under an influx of migrants from the dust-blown plains. “Hooverville” camps were dominating the once-bustling wharfs of a vibrant city, and the idea of a college education was disappearing alongside people’s savings. In choosing Rantz as his centerpiece, Brown is able to highlight the grit and fighting spirit that embodied the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team. By the end of the well-paced book, the boys represent much more than athletic prowess and skill; they symbolize the inspiring commitment of the brave men and women who helped drive Hitler and the Nazis from power.
Hitler, in Brown’s words, “could not have known that hundreds of thousands of boys just like them, boys who shared their essential natures — decent and unassuming, not privileged or favored by anything in particular, just loyal, committed and perseverant — would return to Germany dressed in olive drab, hunting him down.”
Running through the book is this notion that the boys who raced that fateful day represented something much bigger; they personified a scrappy tenacity in a world of privilege and tradition, the perfect symbol of reckless will and American idealism that bumped up glaringly against the jarring patina of the Reich’s weaponry and the jagged emblem of the swastika.
Brown methodically examines the bond the boys slowly developed, all under the careful and thoughtful eye of Al Ulbrickson, the coach who guided them to their historic win, and George Pocock, the man who crafted the trim and lustrous boat that came to fit the boys like a second skin. He details the stories of the friends and family and the home lives of these boys, who defied convention and competed against the storied institutions of the Ivy Leagues in a sport that was unforgiving and demanding of immense commitment and passion.
By the time the University of Washington’s “Husky Clipper” is unloaded in Nazi Germany, the reader is as fully engaged and cheering for a win as Depression-era America was. Brown’s descriptions of the many races that led to the world stage leaves the heart thumping and the spine tingling with pride and excitement. “The Boys in the Boat” is riveting and cinematic, a worthy tribute to nine individuals who fought through the hardships of a generation and stood proud and tall in front of a dictator and a country determined to annihilate the human spirit of individuality and personal identity beneath the weight of its dogmatic and bigoted beliefs.