I mentioned on Facebook last week that I’ve recently read two really great books that take place in the years leading up to WWII. The first, Flight of Dreams, was a suspenseful historical fiction about the last flight of the Hindenburg. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown was neither fiction nor overly suspenseful, but it was no less fantastic. And like any great book about a historical event, this one had me watching videos and reading articles long after I finished the book.
The Boys in the Boat follows the story of the University of Washington crew coaches and athletes as they struggled to be taken seriously against Eastern colleges, battled their University of California rivals, and fought for a place (and medal) in the 1936 Olympics.
The narrative bounces around a bit, but it mostly follows the experience of crew member Joe Rantz. Some of his experiences growing up during the Depression could have been entire books of their own. I was repeatedly amazed by his determination and resiliency. I read this book for book club, and a fair amount of the discussion centered on how to raise children half as capable as Joe and his boat mates.
I knew next to nothing about the sport of crew before I started the book, so the bits of history and explanation were as fascinating to me as the successes and trials of the Washington team. One of the things the book captured so well was the national enthusiasm for collegiate rowing. The annual Poughkeepsie Regatta was an extremely big deal. The book is full of small details that bring the races to life, like the story of a bookie that ended up going out of business after the exceptionally close ending of the 1935 Regatta when each half of the crowd was sure their team had won and he paid out winnings to all of them in confusion. Of all the people in the book, the one I would love most to know more about is the feisty coxswain Bobby Moch. As coxswain, he was much shorter and lighter than the other boys on the team, but by all accounts his personality made up for it.
I listened to the audio version of this book, which is narrated by Edward Hermann (so of course it was fantastic). Once I got my hands on a print copy, though, I noticed pictures and notes at the ends of chapters that I would have liked to see. Whether you read it or have it read to you, The Boys in the Boat is a fantastic book about teamwork, the effort and reward of demanding sports, and 9 humble men that made history.
Some of the women at book club are planning to go down to the lake and row for an afternoon. Me? I’m counting down the days until the Summer Olympics so I can add rowing to my list of sports to watch.
I would recommend this to: readers who enjoy inspiring sports stories, anyone who has competed in intense competition, and those who love to listen to Rory’s Grandpa read.