In the darkest days of winter when it’s easy to lose heart and hope, nothing provides a better antidote to gloom than a book that will warm your heart when the temperatures dip into the single digits. One such book is Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat,” which reminds us that with courage, determination, hard work, and the help of trusted mentors and teammates, it’s possible to prevail against seemingly insurmountable odds.
“The Boys in the Boat” tells the story of how nine young men from America rowed their way to victory in the 1936 Olympics. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the terrible climactic changes that created the Dust Bowl, and Hitler’s goal of dominating not only the Berlin Olympics, but all of Europe, the book follows a group of working class boys from the University of Washington over the course of four years. We watch them learn to row, vie for seats on the eight-man scull lovingly crafted by a consummate boat builder, and endure both physical and emotional hardships to realize their dreams.
Although Brown’s book is essentially a history, it is so crammed with fascinating characters and suspense that it reads like a novel most of the time. One reason the book works so well is that Brown chose to single out one of the athletes, Joe Rantz, to be its main character. As I followed the story of Joe’s difficult life, I had no choice but to become invested in his search for the home he eventually found with the eight-oar crew and with Joyce Simdars, who would become his wife.
Joe’s troubles start when he’s only 4 years old. His mother dies, he’s shipped off to live with relatives, and when he returns home a year later, finds that his father, Harry, has married Thula, a spoiled young woman who never takes to Joe, especially after she begins having children of her own. At 15, as the family prepares to move, Joe is literally abandoned in the house they leave behind. As he struggles to survive and to deal with this unthinkable betrayal, Joe becomes, of necessity, fiercely independent, and while this trait helps him survive, it’s a real handicap to one who must learn to rely on and trust his teammates if he is to be chosen for Washington’s varsity crew.
Here, he’s helped by George Pocock, the Englishman who builds the racing shells for Washington. Pocock’s story and the art and craft of designing and building these long, slim, thin-skinned boats are highlights of the book, but it is the connection he makes with Joe that turns the tide for the younger man. Asked by the coach, Al Ulbrickson, to try to get a handle on this prickly boy whose rowing performance careens wildly from excellent to lackluster, Pocock takes Joe under his wing. He seems to understand that while Joe’s independent nature helped the boy survive, it keeps him from reaching his potential as an oar. Pocock explains that to build the perfect shell, you have to “give yourself up to it spiritually…surrender yourself absolutely to it.” Then he tells Joe: “Rowing is like that. And a lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway.” Joe takes this advice to heart and slowly begins to bond with his teammates until, at last, the eight men learn to row as one.
There’s a lot of talk in this book about what I came to think of as “the Zen of rowing” — that moment of mindless ecstasy when eight men hit “the swing,” are perfectly synchronized, become a single entity. The crew of The Husky Clipper are among the lucky few to experience this unity, and it is what ultimately brings them across the finish line ahead of their nemeses, the University of California team, the teams of privileged young men from the East Coast Ivies, and finally, the Italian and German teams in the 1936 Olympics.
For all its many fine qualities, “The Boys in the Boat” is by no means a perfect book. For one thing, the author lapses into clichéd description far too often. For another, he commits what most biographers and historians would consider a mortal sin by allowing himself to recreate dialogue and thoughts that no one was privy to but Joe and Joyce (a failing he readily admits). Yet while “The Boys in the Boat” will never be to rowing what Norman Maclean’s superb novella, “A River Runs through It,” is to fly fishing, Brown does a wonderful job of researching the time period and of capturing the spirit of that era, especially the sense of good-hearted innocence and joy the young men express. His portraits of Joe’s teammates are also compelling, especially that of Bobby Moch, the coxswain, who is brilliant, daring, and amazingly cool-headed under pressure.
“The Boys in the Boat” is an uplifting, suspenseful read, crammed with information and surprising, interesting facts. For me, it brought pleasure and sustenance just when I needed them most.