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Book Review

A Quick Pull That’s Well Worth the Effort

The Boys in the Boat
by Daniel James Brown

Recommended age: 14+
History, Non-Fiction

From the opening moments of Daniel Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, we learn that there’s more to “the boat” than the finely crafted racing shell. What really matters is the characters and relationships of the men that propelled it… and something more: the spiritual bond that forms under certain conditions when friendship, trial, and beauty intertwine. This is what Joe Rantz, elderly and in failing health, wanted Brown to capture. Boy, does he do it to the gunwales. 

Plunging us into the world of collegiate rowing in the ’30s, we are never left to fend for ourselves as Brown expertly weaves together the personal stories of the characters essential to this real life drama and the fundamentals of a sport unfamiliar to many of his readers. We hear about the intense challenges of those young athletes vying for a position on the school team juxtaposed with Great Depression backstories that beggar belief. The “epic quest” of these nine Americans first spanned North America as they had to prove themselves against their west coast rival, UC Berkeley, before venturing east to compete against the blue-bloods of the American crew world. 

In particular, we hear about Joe Rantz’s path to the University of Washington rowing team. It is a path riddled with challenges including his own self-doubt, continued rejection and loss within his family, and the rigors of earning his spot on the varsity boat that would go to the Berlin Olympics.

When he’s just a boy, Joe’s mother dies unexpectedly. Harry, his father, abandons the family from grief and Joe nearly dies from fever himself. His brother, Fred, fifteen years his senior, soon invites Joe to come out west to join him and his new wife. Soon after arriving, however, his father returns from his grief-stricken stint in Canada and soon is married again—this time to the twin sister of Fred’s wife. 

Joe’s new stepmother, Thula, seems to come right out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Although Brown does not gloss over the difficulties, both physical and psychological, that Thula faced, it is impossible not to cringe as we hear of her making Harry tell Joe, at the age of ten, that he must move out of the family home. Several years later, in a new town and new home, Thula again forces the family to move, leaving a teenaged Joe behind. Although it is devastating, this is also a pivotal time for Joe. The Great Depression is just beginning, and he discovers his sense of agency and ingenuity in keeping himself alive and in school. Most importantly, Joe renews his friendship with Joyce Simdars, who will later become his wife. When Fred invites him to come to Seattle to attend a prestigious high school, Joe can see the opportunity being offered, and so he leaves Joyce behind to secure his future with her. 

Although details of the Dust Bowl, the woes of the Great Depression, and the story of Joe’s family life are unsettling, there is an even more unsettling thread that weaves throughout the story: that of the Nazi characters and their cooperators preparing for the Berlin Olympics. Brown describes the rise of Leni Riefenstahl, an actress, director, and producer of films—most notably, Nazi propaganda films that shaped the world’s opinion of Germany at the time. Hitler himself admired her work and Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, despite an intense jealousy and desire for her, also valued her work. With chilling juxtaposition, Brown shifts from recounting an early victory for Rantz’s freshman boat to the birth of Joseph Goebbels new daughter Hildegard on the same day. “They nicknamed her Hilde, but her father soon began to call her his ‘little mouse.’ She was the second of what would become six Goebbels children, all of whom Magda Goebbels would order murdered with cyanide eleven years later” (p. 100). Hans Christian Andersen couldn’t conceive of that.

Despite hearing of the misery of the Depression and the seemingly apocalyptic natural disasters that accompanied it; despite insights into the evil machinations of Germany such as quoted above, this story is essentially one of hope and goodness. Stories of great natural virtue abound. Although most of our time is given to Joe Rantz’s story, we also learn about his coaches and teammates who led the University of Washington’s teams to national success and later to the 1936 Olympics. We hear about Roger Morris, Chuck Day, Johnny White, and other boys in the boat. The stolid silence of Washington rowing coach Al Ulbrickson, a.k.a. the “Dower Dane,” brings a quiet tension as we watch him assess his rowers. But perhaps most of all, we never stray far from the calm consideration of George Yeoman Pocock. Just as his thoughtful presence permeated the shell house at the University of Washington, quotes from him punctuate the start of each chapter. An Englishman who emigrated to the United States via Canada, he was a boatwright schooled in the most storied waters of competitive rowing—the Thames River. He made a name for himself in Canada as a racing shell builder and, by the time Joe Rantz met him, was among the most sought-after builders of America. To him, the craft was more than just an assembly of pieces. “The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, to accommodate, [Pocock] said, was sometimes a source of strength in man as well as in wood, so long as it was helmed by inner resolve and by principle” (p. 215). He brought a depth and devotion to his work that earned the respect of all those that knew him.

Although not a word is said about religion, this is a book that will challenge the reader to a self-examination of one’s own virtues: resolve, diligence, dedication, toughness, loyalty, understanding, hope, charity. Although every athlete should read this book, it is not simply a story about athleticism. Although every teacher and coach should read this book, it is not simply a story about expert guidance. Although every American should read this book, the story transcends nationality. Every mother, father, son, and daughter should read this book because it is both a cautionary tale of the evil we can commit through our self-centeredness and an exposition of the greatness of the human heart. 

About the Reviewer

Peter Vitz

Art, Natural History
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