BOOK REVIEW: The Boys In the Boat by Daniel James Brown
Genre: Historical Nonfiction
Description (bookflap): Out of the depths of the Depression comes the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant. With rowers who were the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by challenging the German boat rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard, but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man’s personal quest.
After seeing this book compared to Unbroken (which I LOVED–read my review of it here) I knew I had to read it. It did not disappoint. My husband teased me relentlessly for reading this book with such persistent fervor, and I admit, when you hear “Olympic rowing team” you don’t automatically think “Wow, this is going to be a super exciting book–I bet I’ll barely be able to put it down!” Or maybe you do. Anyways, the point is that, against all odds, it was. The details about the rowers themselves drew you in, and somehow after that initial “gotcha”, Brown makes you care about rowing more than you ever thought you could. It is just beautiful writing. I think I especially enjoyed it since we’re living in Washington right now. I could really envision the conditions these rowers were practicing in–the rain, the scenery, the rain, the cold, the rain, the fog, and the rain just came right to life for me. 😉
Beyond the obvious historical significance (the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games), The Boys in the Boat provided a glimpse into the impact the Great Depression was having on Washington state. In a time when so many people were struggling to thrive–Joe Rantz and his family among them–it’s inspiring to know about the people who did. The old saying, “Pulling himself up by his bootstraps” could have been the biographical tagline of Joe Rantz. He had a horrible childhood, was living on his own by the time he was ten, barely made enough to live on, and still managed to rise above all of that to put himself through college, be a gold medalist in the Olympics, get a good job, and have a long, happy marriage. The only comparisons to be drawn from the characters of Joe Rantz and our current generation are very, very humbling ones. Life is what you make of it. No matter the circumstances, if you have a determination to succeed, you can and you will–and that is as true today as it was in the 1930s. All things considered, we’re all much better off than most were in the 30s, so we really have no excuses.
On a lighter note, this book also has pictures. I’m convinced that we never outgrow our love of picture books–we’re just generally compelled to stop reading them because they’re below our reading level and we’re too busy to sit around in the kids department reading all day. Y’all, I seriously get so excited when I see there are pictures in a book. If there are pictures, they’re the first thing I look at. It probably should embarrass me a little to admit that, but it doesn’t. Why? Because a picture is worth a thousand words. Or something like that, anyways.
The only thing I disliked about this book wasn’t even really a dislike, I just didn’t understand it. Throughout the book, Brown has these little mini-chapters on what was going on in Germany at the time. I understand that he was making a point about the fact that Hitler was in power and a lot of horrible things were beginning to happen in Germany. American participation in the 1936 Olympics was debated, and at least some faction within the United States, strongly opposed the idea. Even knowing the historical significance of the Olympics being held in Hitler’s Germany, and the controversy that went along with the United States’ participation in those Olympics, the little excerpts throughout the book just felt disjointed and somewhat out of place.
Imagine… You’re rowing on a serene lake, with the incredible panorama of the Olympic mountains on one side and the Cascades on the other unfolding before you as the fog lifts… ADOLPH HITLER.
You see how weird that is? I thought you would.
Here’s the short and sweet: Read this book. Even if you’re not a huge fan of historical nonfiction, just give it a whirl. It’s worth it.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars