This is the remarkable story of the University of Washington's 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.
An amazing balance of human interest, history and sport. Joe Rantz's story had my mothers heart wanting to give his ten year old self a big hug. His story and the man he became is simply heart breaking and admirable. He and the other boys wormed their way under my skin and I found myself holding my breath more than once during their races.
The book went back and forth between the US and Germany. The snow job they pulled on the world during the Olympics, convincing many others that they were a progressive and fair nation. There were small moments of humor too, as when the German people greeted our athletes with a raised arm and shouted, Heil, Hitler, our athletes raised their arms and answered back, "Heil, Roosevelt.
The sport of course took up much of the book from the scull maker, Popcock to the coach, Al Ubrickson. The hard work that went into training, and of course the races, competitions between the East and West coast. The lives of the men in the boat and what happened to them after.
All in all I found this a stirring read, a wonderful book.
That was my reaction before reading the book, but holy hell, what a story. It's about the legendary 1936 Olympic rowing team from the University of Washington, comprised mainly of "uncouth" working class boys who were more or less scorned by the privileged students of the elite eastern schools. Against-all-odds victories always make for a good read, but the story of crew member Joe Rantz takes the cake, who as a teenager was literally abandoned by his family and had to forage for food.
Of course, the 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin. While we're learning about the crew members, their coaches, and possibly the best boat maker in the world, we also learn about how the Nazis viewed the event as perfect propaganda for their Aryan paradise. They cleansed the city of the most obvious anti-semitism and hired infamous Leni Riefenstahl to film the monstrous film Olympia. Oh, and they clearly tried to rig the rowing competition by changing the rules and giving the Americans the worst lane.
A couple quibbles. I don't like hagiography, and would have preferred a more warts-and-all portrayal of the athletes. I would have liked a more thorough discussion of decision to participate in the 1946 Nazi-fest at all. And I would have liked a more complete picture of Joe Rantz's stepmother Thula, who in this book is a stepmother straight out of fairy tales and is just too despicable to be believed.
If THE BOYS IN THE BOAT was fiction, I wouldn't have enjoyed it. That's because the whole thing is so unlikely: Joe overcame such odds in his personal life. None of the boys came from money when they suddenly emerged from Seattle, a city few were familiar with then, to beat the prestigious Eastern schools (e.g., Yale and Harvard). The boat and the boys dealt with several disadvantages in Germany, both before and during their races, only to beat their competition. None of this story would be believable if I didn't know it was true.
Throughout this book, juxtaposed against Joe's and the boys' story is Hitler's creation of the fictional Germany that he wanted to present to the world during the Olympics there. As he hides the real Germany, the US ignores him, and the boys and other athletes just work on getting there.
When the story was over, I didn't want it to be over. So I read the endnotes. You'll probably do that, too.
"...Bolles sometimes spoke of life-transforming experiences. He held out the prospect of becoming part of something larger than themselves, of finding in themselves something they did not yet know they possessed, of growing from boyhood to manhood. At times he dropped his voice a bit and shifted his tone and cadence and talked of near mystical moments on the water – moments of pride, elation and deep affection for one’s fellow oarsmen, moments they would remember, cherish and recount to their grandchildren when they were old men. Moments, even, that would bring them nearer to God.
We all hope for -- and if lucky enough, recall for a lifetime -- these moments of transcendence.
It helps that this is one of those too-good-to-be-true stories, full of many classic elements: underdogs beating the odds, people learning to love and trust each other before they can succeed, working class boys out-doing East Coast old money at their own game, not to mention Good Old American hard work and perseverance defeating the Evil Nazis in their own back yard, all against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the tension of the build-up to World War Two.
The local color really helped, too - I am familiar with most of the places in Washington where the action takes place, so that probably helped me enjoy the book more than I would have otherwise.
Joe Rantz grew up extremely poor during the depression. His mother died when he was young and when his father remarried, Joe's stepmother, Thula, was very unhappy, so she, Joe's father, and their kids left Joe behind to fend for himself on a couple of occasions. Thula never wanted to take care of Joe. Joe managed to not only put himself through university, he made the rowing team... the rowing team that went on to fight for the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This is Joe's story, and the story of that rowing team.
I'm not “into” rowing, but this was really good. Some of the technical aspects that described the rowing, I skimmed over, but everything else was really interesting and quite riveting. Not only did we learn about rowing, Joe's life, and life during the Depression, there was also discussion of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany leading up to the Olympics that were held in Belin. All very interesting and I was reading “on the edge of my seat” during some of the races!
The Boys in the Boat is an engaging Cinderella story of a young team of rowers who came from very humble origins to win Olympic glory, despite the overwhelming odds against them. This compelling human interest story is very accessible even for those who have little or no previous knowledge of the sport of rowing.
Highly recommended for sports fans and anyone who enjoyed Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. One side note: as this book is focused mainly on a single team, readers interested in Olympic history might prefer a more general work on the Berlin Games; at times, the backdrop of the games themselves is slightly wanting here.
With incredible imagery and historic accuracy, Joe recalls the tragic events of his heartbreaking and homeless childhood, and reflects on the hunger and loneliness of that decade.
With a redemption that overpowers The Great Depression, Joe's determination takes him from devastation to greatness in this inspiring true story of a 9 man Crewing Team.