Saturday, August 3, 2013

Readin' Interruptus: The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown is a great and exciting book, as far as I've read.

Perhaps I should explain that. Our family became involved with the sport of rowing through our youngest daughter, Gwynedd, who rowed for Holy Names Academy for 4 years and then spent four more years rowing for Princeton. In order to experience something of what she was going through, I took a Learn to Row class at Lake Union Crew in Seattle, the same boathouse she rowed out of during high school. We have an erg in our basement for workouts.After reading a review of The Boys in the Boat on the row2k website, I immediately alerted Gwynedd as I was sure that it would be a book we would both enjoy. She picked up an autographed copy at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (she missed Daniel James Brown's reading there due to school commitments) and it was waiting at home when I got there in July. Having spent several evenings reading When I Left Home and The Ear of the Heart, I was pretty sure that I would not have enough time to finish The Boys . . .. I was right. When it came time to leave Seattle, I was about 70-75% of the way through the book and was coming to the climactic part. Because it was Gwynedd's book and she had not started reading it yet, I didn't think it would be fair for me to take it to Jordan with me, just because I wanted to finish it.

The Boys in the Boat is primarily a history book, but it's a history book that reads like a novel because of D. J. Brown's focus on the people involved in the story and one person in particular, Joe Rantz. It tells the story of the 1936 University of Washington men's varsity rowing team, but more than that, it tells the story of rowing in the US in the first half of the 20th century. Brown does a fantastic job of showing the wildly varied personalities of the people involved with the sport of rowing and its intense rivalries. He explores the rivalry of UW and Cal-Berkely in depth and also the rivalry between the privileged Eastern rowing establishment and the more blue-collar rowing programs of the West.

Brown's focal point for telling the whole story is the heart-breaking story of Joe Rantz. Because the run up to the 1936 Olympics all takes place during The Great Depression in America, there were hard luck stories everywhere. Joe Rantz grew up in Spokane and northern Idaho and then moved with his family first to Seattle and finally to Sequim. Joe's mother died in Spokane and his grief-stricken father abandoned Joe and his older brother for a time. Joe was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania and made the cross-country train trip by himself twice by at the ages of 5 and 7. When Joe's father sent for him, he had remarried and Joe and his step-mother, Thula, did not get along well. In Sequim at the age of 15, Joe was abandoned to live on his own in their half-finished house, while his father and step-mother took the three younger children with them. Joe didn't fold, he worked at many odd jobs and continued going to school, eventually going to live with his older brother in Seattle and graduating from Roosevelt High School and then entering UW.

One of the other characters that Brown does a particularly fine job with is George Pocock, the British-born boat builder and rowing mystic, who served as an adviser to the UW crew program. His exposition of Pocock's boat building are quite lyrical and show him as a craftsman and artist who worshiped in the temple of the boat.

Another of the reasons I loved the book is that so much of it takes place in Seattle. His evocation of practices on Lake Washington and rowing through Mountlake Cut were all the more thrilling because they were only a couple of miles from where I sat reading the book.

Brown does a great job explaining both the mechanics of rowing and the intensity of the races involved. His descriptions of the intense trust and teamwork required to make an 8-person racing shell get up and go are particularly evocative. The chapter I finished last ended with UW sweeping the freshman, JV, and varsity races at the 1936 IRA championships in Poughkeepsie, New York. In broad outlines I know what comes next, but I'm just going to have to wait until I return to Seattle in December to finish it!

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I'm currently 60 years old. I currently work as the learning management system specialist for American University of Madaba in Madaba, Jordan. I was originally certified as a high-school English teacher and taught school for 13 years (1 year of substituting, 1 year of 7th grade, 2 years of a combined 5th, 6th, 7th grade, 9 years of 8th grade). I've worked for hardware and software companies for the past 23 years doing training, training materials development, certification test development and other education related stuff. My wife and I have raised four children to adulthood; some of them live at home at the moment, but that won't last (they're too independent for that). We live at home with 2 Golden Retrievers, 2 black cats, a crazy cat, and, during the winter, 70,000 coho salmon.