Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review of The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (2013, Viking)

The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the US rowing eight and their quest to win gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  The central hook for the story is the life of Joe Rantz, a man who’d had a hard upbringing and had never rowed three years prior to the Olympics.  After his mother had died, Joe’s father remarried, but his step-mother resented Joe and the life she’d inherited.  He was pushed out of the house aged ten, sleeping in the schoolhouse and earning his keep by cutting logs for the school furnace and serving miners breakfast, and was abandoned completely at age 15 at the height of the Great Depression.  Despite this Joe managed to survive, living on his own in the old family home, doing odd-jobs and scrapping-by and doing well enough at school to enrol at the University of Washington.  There he joined the rowing club, hoping it would help him get part-time work on campus.  His natural talents as a rower were quickly discovered and, despite a sense of being out of place, he worked his way into the elite freshman boat.  Over the next three years, the UW boat in which Rantz rowed, predominately made up of working class young men, never lost a race, earning the right to represent their country at the Olympics, their trip paid for by public donations from communities in Washington State.

Rather than simply focus solely on Rantz and his fellow crew, Brown tells a multi-layered story, weaving together strands that detail the development of rowing at UW in the 1920s and 30s, the personal trajectories of coaches and master boat builder, George Pocock, their rivalry with the University of California, and rowing in the US more generally, the Great Depression, and how the Nazis orchestrated the 1936 Olympics.  The result is a richly contextualised, fascinating, and highly entertaining tale, rich in personal biographies, historic occasions, and high emotion and drama.  Despite all its moving parts, Brown’s narrative is beautifully structured, never losing coherence, and his voice very engaging.  In short, I found I couldn’t put the book down since I was so wrapped up in the lives, the history, the races of Joe and his crew, and the Great Depression and the 1936 Olympics.  My read of the year so far.

1 comment:

Icewineanne said...

Terrific review Rob. This has shot to the top of my tbr list. :)