Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Book Review: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
The author lucked out when he met the daughter of Joe Rantz, one of the gold medalist crew rowers from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Not only did she have a treasure trove of clippings, memorabilia, and memories from her parents, but her father was still alive. Naturally, of the 9-member team, Joe is center-stage.
His young life was particularly hard-scrabble, even before the Depression began. His mother dies when he was young and his father took off. Luckily, his much-older brother took him in, until his father returned and remarried (awkwardly, his new bride was the sister of his older son's wife.) Joe moved in with them, but they moves a lot, his father's employment was always iffy, his step-mother was always unhappy, and with each new child, her unhappiness grew. One day she snapped and said Joe couldn't live with them anymore. So his father arranged for Joe to sleep at the schoolhouse in the mining town in Idaho where they were living at that time. Joe was about ten. This continued, with the family moving and Joe living nearby in a rented room or with a friend, until finally when he was in high school, his family moved away and left him in their Washington farmhouse, alone, just at the start of the Depression. Joe however was resilient and very hard-working. There's almost nothing he wouldn't do to get by. And when he starts college, he needs a campus job. The best way to get that was to be a member of one of the premier school sports, and crew was probably the most prestigious. With his height and upper body strength, it seemed a good fit. But crew was such a popular sport at that time that hundreds of boys would try out each fall.
Naturally, we're never very worried that Joe won't make the team, since we know this is the story of the gold medalists, but his spot in the lead boy is always the most precarious. Luckily the master craftsman who made the shells, George Pocock, acted as a mentor and over time, Joe was able to get mastery over himself and most importantly, learn to trust, which was the key to his boat hitting their stride and gelling as one.
Joe both seems to good to be true, and yet also very real. One summer he worked at a dam site where he had to rappel over the side of a cliff face with a 75-lb. jackhammer and hold it up, and work on stubborn boulders, while being mindful of boulders flying down from men working above him. This paid $0.75 an hour, which was 50% higher than the still manual but less insane work he'd initially been offered. He needed the money and he had the strength and the guts to do that kind of work. I am glad he met the love of his life early (Joyce) and that they had a long and stable life together, after his Dickensian childhood.
The material was a little dense, as few readers are familiar with the mechanics of rowing or how the races are set up or what the strategies might be. There's also a large cast of characters, although I found them pretty easy to keep track of. This was a fascinating story about a little-known group of world-class young men who I am proud represented the United States at a pivotal moment in our history (Louis Zamparini of Unbroken fame also competed at the same Olympics.)
I bought this book at Quail Ridge Books, an independent bookstore in Raleigh, North Carolina.