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The 2016 Summer Olympics are just about to begin in Rio, so it was perfect timing that I picked up an account of a different set of Olympic Games held 80 years ago.The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown is by far one of the best books I’ve read all year. It’s narrative nonfiction at its finest, where the reader feels fully immersed in the story. When I would surface from an hours-long stretch of reading, my modern surroundings sometimes felt less real than the rhythmic dip of oars in chilly water and the hoarse cheers of spectators.
If the idea of reading a nonfiction book about rowing makes you feel as though you’d rather go jump into Lake Washington, don’t sweat it. I had zero interest or knowledge about rowing before picking up The Boys in the Boat, but I was in good hands. Brown does a fine job of slowly introducing his readers to the concepts, terms, and strategies that are essential to the sport. His descriptions of the races throughout the book are excellently narrated, to the extent that I could visualize them perfectly and held my breath through each one. Taking things a step further, Brown also conveys the near-spiritual elevation the rowers experience when they become almost totally in sync with each other. It’s truly teamwork and human cooperation at its finest, which can give one a vicarious thrill by just reading about it.
“And he came to understand how those almost mystical bonds of trust and affection, if nurtured correctly, might lift a crew above the ordinary sphere, transport it to a place where nine boys somehow became one thing – a thing that could not quite be defined, a thing that was so in tune with the water and the earth and the sky above that, as they rowed, effort was replaced by ecstasy. It was a rare thing, a sacred thing, a thing devoutly to be hoped for.”
Although readers become acquainted with all nine of the young University of Washington athletes, the true protagonist of the book is Joe Rantz. Abandoned by his family as a teenager during the Great Depression, Joe is a true underdog who has the most to gain and lose. His lack of bitterness, determination to succeed, and desire to form meaningful connections with others despite his past hurt make him easy to root for. Additionally, the book provides fascinating character studies of some of the other major players, including taciturn coach Al Ulbrickson and British boat craftsman George Pocock.
The Boys in the Boat is also about far more than, well, the boys in the boat. It’s the tale of an intense college rivalry, and the reporters who told its story. It’s a microcosm of the rustic West Coast challenging the genteel East Coast. And it’s the story of a nation emerging from a Great Depression into another world war. Brown includes snapshots of the preparation and propaganda that went into the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as Germany carefully crafted the image that would be presented to the whole world.
Eighty years later, we live in a very different world, but there’s still coxed eight rowing at the Summer Olympic Games – and this time, I might actually watch it.