The Boys In the Boat: Nine Americans and
Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
By Daniel James Brown
$31 Viking Adult
Maybe you have never had an interest in eight-oared rowing, so this would not be a book you would consider. You would miss a great true story about some astounding young men, and the story of their adventures on and off the water.
Here too is the terrible Depression of the 1930s in America; and the rise of Hitler in Germany. All in all an amazing tale.
That this rowing team from Washington won the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics is a known. But who they were and how they came to that point, that is the story.
Joe Rantz is the main character here because he is the one who told the story to Daniel James Brown. Joe was an old man on his death bed, but he knew he’d had an incredible life and he wanted it recorded. In his mind were the magic and beauty of the boat and the team who developed “a special kind of endurance that comes from mind, heart and body.”
The young men who became members of the rowing team were generally over six feet in height, and had developed great upper body strength. “Pound for pound, Olympic oarsmen may take in and process as much oxygen as a thoroughbred race horse.” It is a grueling sport practised in often ghastly cold, rainy and windy weather.
Joe Rantz’s young life was one of deprivation, cruelty and loneliness. As a result, he was a lone wolf, dependent on himself, easily rebuffed and solitary. Like others, he was desperately poor, but determined to succeed.
In rowing, he found comrades and (eventually) peace. He attended University of Washington and became a rower at 19 years of age. All the crew were a similar age and all were remarkable achievers.
An important member, in the background, was George Yeoman Pocock, the builder of the craft.
Pocock said, “A good shell has to have life and resiliency to get in harmony with the swing of the crew.”
The shells were made from tight-grained, straight sections cut from ancient cedar trees into planks 60 feet long. These trees grew around Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island. They were shaved into delicate sheets just 5/32nds of an inch thick. He used a method of building perfected by the Salish people of the Northwest.
There is a great deal to admire in this book: the stamina of the crew, the coaching, the personal toughness of Joe Rantz, the perfection finally reached in the rowing rhythm that led to the gold medal in 1936.
The history (1933-1936) here is also important. The propaganda campaign put together by the Nazis, to convince the world that Germany was a place of peace, prosperity and harmony, was carefully planned.
Eventually, young men of the Allies would return to Europe, not as rowers but as soldiers, sailors and airmen, in defence of peace.
Peggy Freeman is a local freelance books reviewer.