Sunday, September 24, 2017

Boys in the Boat: On Abandonment and Togetherness

July 14, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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boys in the boat 1

boys in the boat 2I confess: I don’t like business trips because I have to sleep in hotel rooms.  Something about being alone makes me…well, lonely.  But until I read Daniel James Brown’s terrific book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, I don’t think I understood the true meaning of “lonely.”

Imagine you’re a young boy in Depression-era Washington state.  Your mother dies, and your decidedly blue-collar (when employed) father remarries.  One day, your father explains that, because of terrible economic conditions, the family needs to relocate. But he doesn’t mean with you.  So dad, step-mom, and your half-siblings drive away and leave you with a partly-built house, no heat, and some meager provisions.  Now that’s lonely.

That’s the story of Joe Rantz, the central character in this nonfiction book about a group of working-class boys who attended the University of Washington and managed to win gold at Hitler’s (and Leni Riefenstahl’s) coming-out party for the demented Nazi regime. One of the many amazing things about Rantz’s story is that although he grew up largely on his own, he triumphed in coxed eight-man crew, the ultimate team sport.

Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about crew. Yet Brown’s riveting writing had me rooting for the Washington boys in long-since decided competitions!

The Boys in the Boat is liberally sprinkled with Zen-like quotations from George Pocock, the dean of racing shell builders, who emigrated from Britain to Canada in 1911 in search of better employment. Pocock eventually moved to Seattle and became a sort of advisor to the Washington rowing team, while designing and manufacturing top-quality shells for other college teams, including Cal, Washington’s biggest rival in crew.

We in the U.S. live in a powerful country but we certainly love an underdog story. The Boys in the Boat wonderfully qualifies as the consummate tale of overcoming a hardscrabble beginning and triumphing over adversity. In addition to eventually defeating the Nazis, the Washington boys had to cope with the prejudices of Eastern colleges and crew fans, who viewed them as ignorant lumberjacks competing in a gentleman’s sport.

All in all, this book is a superb effort from Brown and an excellent read.

By Gene Killian


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Video of rowing from 1936 Olympics

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