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The Boys in the Boat Book Review

Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for God at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown; Viking Books; June 2013; 404 pp

The 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, are probably best remembered for Jesse Owens' four gold medals and the threatened boycott by the United States due to Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party's statement that Blacks and Jews should not be allowed to compete.  One of the less-remembered teams to win gold in those Olympics was the eight-man rowing team.  An absorbing new book, The Boys in the Boat, chronicles the dramatic story of that winning crew team.

Author Daniel James Brown states in his prologue that The Boys in the Boat was born when he met with one of the crewmen, Joe Rantz, having been invited by Rantz's daughter, Judy, as her father lay dying.  Brown visited with Rantz and heard of his incredibly difficult childhood and young adulthood, growing up during the Great Depression.  He was moved by Rantz's account of his rowing career and noted how emotional Rantz became when he recalled his crew team and their march to the 1936 Olympics.  Brown then spent countless hours interviewing Judy, the crewmembers, their families, and their close friends and studying their diaries and private collections of documents.  The result is an interesting and well-written narrative that readers-not only rowing fans-will find captivating.

The eight rowers and coxswain were all working-class students-farm boys, fishermen, and loggers-- at the University of Washington and had won the national rowing title, beating their archrival University of California at Berkeley, along with several East Coast schools, to qualify as the United States entry in the Olympics.  The Boys in the Boat recounts the lives of all nine of the men, along with their coaches, but the focus of the book is Joe Rantz and his inspiring story.

When Rantz was about to turn four, his mother died.  From that point on his childhood was difficult. At age ten his father told him that he could no longer live with them. From then on, Rantz had to all but fend for himself. Surprisingly, he stayed in school, living in rural Washington, until the summer of 1931, when his older brother suggested Rantz move in with him to complete his senior year in high school.  The thought was that if he graduated from a good high school, he might be able to get into the University of Washington, which is what happened.

The Boys in the Boat relates how Rantz and his crew mates competed for a spot on the varsity team at UW and how they were mentored by their coaches and the legendary British craftsman who built their boat.  Brown does a masterful job of telling the story with detail and emotion.  Readers will feel the drama of the Olympic race culminated with a come-from-behind, split-second victory by the U.S. team.

While Rantz and his crew mates were training, Germany was preparing to host the Olympics by temporarily suspending the assault on the Jews.  Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were also preparing a propaganda film which promoted Aryan "purity" and Nazi supremacy, with German film star Leni Riefenstahl at the helm. 

Part of what makes The Boys in the Boat such a good read is the way Brown intertwines the story of Germany's Olympic preparations with the narrative of Joe Rantz and his crew team's journey to the Olympics.  Readers will find both accounts fascinating. 

Brown is the author of two previous nonfiction books, including Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894.

boys in the boat