“The Boys in the Boat”, by, Daniel James Brown, Penguin Books, New York, New York, 2013, pp 370.
In the past I have reviewed mostly books about runners and running, for runners and running, written by a runner or had running in the title(how slick?!). So on a great recommendation from a friend(and the Sonoma Gals Book Club) I began reading a book about rowing, specifically the nine-man crew that went to the 1936 Berlin Olympics with a quest for the Gold Medal. Now I straight up don’t know a lot about rowing and although I watch it during the Olympics I don’t follow the sport regularly. Still, I felt this book was a great choice for two main reasons: 1) It’s an Olympic year and June is Olympic month and 2) I am fascinated with the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin and the politics of the era.
Upon starting the book I kind of read over the quote that begins each chapter. As it turns out each quote or thought is by a man named George Yeoman Pocock. In chapter three his character is formulated and it turns out that Mr. Pocock is a former rower from England who is a (the) master builder of the 8 man cedar shell (boat). In fact the Pocock shell is still considered the premiere shell. Well I went back and restarted reading the quotes prior to each paragraph and found that they added much to the storyline.
In lieu of giving a detailed telling of the story (’cause why would you read it then?) let me just say this is one of the finest sport stories I have ever read. Character development was excellent and complete. You really feel like you know what makes each character tick. Each chapter covers a number of storylines and character developments and repeats them in a way that makes you part of a story, part of the character’s life – a part of history.
The historical time frame covered extends from the late 1800’s through 1943 with excellent historical perspectives throughout the storieline. The epilogue chapter covers the lives of the characters through the 21st century. The reader will get an interesting feel for the times of the early 1900’s, the development of Seattle, the depression era, the politics surrounding the Olympics (and Avery Brundage) and the politics of Hitler, a rebuilding Germany post WWI and the way Hitler snuck up on the world prior to trying to rule it.
This will happen by following the life story of Joe Rantz, one of the nine rowers on the 1936 Olympic Rowing team from the University of Washington. You will learn about his rather sad early life and how it developed his resolve. You meet his teammates, how they relate to one another as the team is formed from over a hundred young men over four years under the watchful eye and tutelage of Coach Al Ulbrickson and Master shell builder George Y. (Yoda?) Pocock.
The Boys in the Boat is incredibly well written in all ways. I was especially impressed with the historical perspective and the development of an understanding of this new sport to me, Crew. The individual and team aspect of crew parallels in many ways running and cross-country although even more linked due to the synchronous nature of rowing. The story telling of the actual races was very good and I found myself immersed in the crew racing experience much as if I was in a race myself. I don’t often give an unequivocal thumbs up but with this book I am prepared to do so. If the story alone was not enough I was definitely enamored with the G. Y. Pocock quotes that begin each chapter.
Two examples of George Pocock’s insight circa the 1930’s are prescient of the type of things I shared with my high school runners and have shared with other Empire Runners:
“ Men as fit as you, when your everyday strength is gone, can draw on a mysterious reservoir of power far greater. Then it is that you can reach for the stars. That is the way champions are made.”
“Where is the spiritual value of rowing?…The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole.”
And in an homage to the “Runner’s High”:
“When you get the rhythm in an eight, it’s pure pleasure to be in it. It’s not hard work when the rhythm comes… that “swing” as they call it. I’ve heard men shriek out with delight when that swing came in an eight; it’s a thing they’ll never forget as long as they live.”
My recommendation is to read this book as soon as you can. It is a wonderful read full of depth and detail, characters and history, sport and its impact. Read it NOW, before it becomes a movie.
Rating: Excellent 5/5 *****