I picked up The Boys in the Boat to learn more about the sport of rowing. My daughter joined her high school crew team a year and a half ago—but even after a year of attending regattas every weekend and eavesdropping on carpool conversations on the many trips to the river for practice, my grasp of the sport was limited.
The book did not disappoint. Author Daniel James Brown packs many fascinating details about the time-honored sport of rowing into the book. But he also does a masterful job of weaving the stories of the rowers and their coaches into a tale that will inspire even an armchair athlete with no connection to rowing.
You wouldn’t think that a book that tells you the ending on page one—“nine young men from the state of Washington—farm boys, fishermen, and loggers—who shocked the rowing world and Adolf Hitler by winning the gold medal in eight-oared rowing at the 1936 Olympics”—would be filled with suspense, but Brown manages to make this classic underdog tale a page-turner. Using interviews with surviving rowers and their families, diaries, news stories, video footage, and other records, Brown makes this beating-the-odds tale as compelling as a novel.
The book chronicles the unlikely story of a group of college freshman who had never rowed before on their journey to becoming the best rowers in the world in less than four years. Interwoven into the tale are vivid descriptions of growing up in the American West during the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany as they prepare for the 1936 Olympic Games.
At the emotional heart of the story is Joe Rantz, who at age ten is abandoned by his father and step-mother. We see how rowing helps him overcome his difficult childhood and regain his self-worth. In the four years he rowed for the University of Washington and on the Olympic team, he never lost a race. After winning the gold medal, Rantz went on to a successful career as a chemical engineer at Boeing.
Putting a winning boat together is part science and part art. That job fell to Coach Al Ulbrickson, who was just a few years older than his crew. To give himself the air of authority, Coach Ulbrickson always dressed impeccably in a dark three-piece suit, a white shirt, a tie, and a fedora, and could usually be seen spinning his Phi Betta Kappa key on a lanyard.
His job was to develop a group of rowers who were not only strong but who could work in unison. In the seasons leading up to the 1936 Olympics, Coach Ulbrickson changed up the rowers in the varsity boat until he found the right combination of eight rowers and a coxswain who could find the “swing,” a magical but allusive thing that Brown describes like this:
“It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with the others. It is not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action—each subtle turning of wrists—must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulled oars. Only then will it feel as though the boat is part of each of them, moving as if on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation. Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.”
I found the remarkable achievements of this group of “boys in the boat” truly inspiring. One reviewer described the book as “Chariot of Fire with Oars.” Even if you are not a rower or parent of a rower, I’d recommend this book if you are interested in:
- Pacific Northwest history (1930s)
- Rooting for the underdog
- The rise of Nazi Germany
- The Great Depression
The rights for the movie version of The Boys in the Boat have been picked up with Kenneth Branagh slated as the director. Currently there is no date for the release, but when it makes the silver screen, and I’m sure it will, you’ll find me at the front of the ticket line.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Author: Daniel James Brown
Number of pages: 404
For ages 12 and up
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown — Official Book Trailer