The Boys in the Boat|
Nine Men and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics
Daniel James Brown
Viking, 2013, $28.95
The rhythm of this book is like the rhythm of a rowing shell in action, in out, up down, pull release, which is both appropriate and unsettling. All by way of saying that it is not a book for the beach. The bulk of the story takes place during the depression and the horrendous suffering and poverty of that era is lived (and described in detail) by several of the members of the crew team. Seattle weather doesn't do anything to cheer up the story either. Then the blinding light of triumph beyond all odds...winning the gold in Berlin, is also darkened by the growing pre-war atrocities committed by the Nazis--which the author is obliged to describe simply by adhering to the truth. But tough times inspire great stories and the story of this team and of team member, Joe Rantz, is certainly one.
In spite of the mayhem and misery of the times, all of the "boys in the boat" will swell your heart, and Rantz's experiences challenge credibility. His life, before finding his place on the University of Washington crew team was unbelievably miserable...aching poverty, literal abandonment at 14 by his father and stepmother, living alone and getting by as a young teen by his own wits and willingness to do anything and to work to exhaustion at whatever he worked at. Among the many harrowing jobs he performed just to get by were going down in a gold and ruby mine in Idaho, stumping long cut Douglas fir forests, and hanging out on cliff faces drilling rock for the Grand Coulee Dam.
A good portion of the book focuses on the boats, the practices and the meets. Brown describes in detail the physical aspect of rowing: the horrifically demanding combination of strategy, strength, precision. He also explores the spirit, loyalty and mental concentration that bind the eight rowers and the coxswain into a single unit of effort and consciousness.
But there is another hero in this book who hardly appears in the text but is honored with a quote at the beginning of each chapter. George Yeoman Pocock, born in Kingston onThames in 1891, was the shell builder at the University of Washington from whom oarsmen drew inspiration for many years. Generations of his family had built and rowed boats on the Thames. When his father, who worked at Eton, lost his job, George and his brother immigrated to Canada, crossed the continent and landed in Vancouver. After a series of very odd jobs, they set up a boat shop where they were "discovered" by the Vancouver Rowing Club. Eventually, George found his way to the University of Washington--in good time to inspire the class of boys who would go to the Olympics. The quotation that precedes the epilog describes the essence of the sport. "Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They're the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them civilization is out of whack. And that's why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That's what he gets from rowing."
By happenstance, author, Brown was a next door neighbor to Joe Rantz when he was an old man. Rantz was reading one of Brown's books and decided he'd like to meet the author and invited his neighbor to visit. Brown was able to interview him and his daughter Judy at length. Many of the period photographs that enrich and enhance the text came from Rantz family collection. Somewhere in all that serendipity is another metaphor for the sport.