Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

This book is a sterling example of what is often described as narrative nonfiction – “joining good research with compelling, character-driven storytelling--reads like a novel”.  I might add that it reads not like any ordinary novel, but one filled with drama and suspense even though we know the outcome.

It is the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and coxswain, made up of sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers who defeated elite and prestigious rivals such as Harvard and Princeton and sons of aristocrats from Cambridge and Oxford. It’s a story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times.  Much like Seabiscuit of the same Great Depression era, it gave the country an underdog to cheer for.  It reminded them what can be achieved when everyone quite literally pulls together. Author Brown, says, “For me, the story is very much a metaphor for what that whole generation managed to do.”

As author David Laskin (The Children’s Blizzard and The Long Way Home) praises it so aptly, “I read the last fifty pages with white knuckles and the last twenty-five with tears in my eyes. History, sports, human interest, weather, suspense, design, physics, oppression and inspiration—this book has it all.”

In fact, there is so much to discuss in this book, I have tried for a month to write this review but always fell short in describing its magnificence.  A big accolade, I know but so deserving.  Since my own words seemed inadequate, I decided the best approach was to share the author’s words in his prologue which captured my heart immediately. 

“This book was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through wet woods to a modest frame house where Joe Rantz lay dying.  I knew only two things about Joe when his daughter Judy opened the door that day. I knew that in his mid-seventies he had single-handedly hauled a number of cedar logs down a mountain, then hand-split the rails and cut the posts and installed all 2,224 linear feet of the pasture fence I had just climbed over. And I knew he had been one of the nine young men from the state of Washington who shocked both the rowing world and Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Olympics…he talked about learning the art of rowing, about shells and oars…about long cold hours  on the water under steel-gray skies…marching into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin and his crewmates….it was when he tried to talk about the boat that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes…something mysterious and beyond definition…it was about a shared experience when nine good-hearted men gave everything they had for one another,  bound together forever by pride and respect and love.  I told Joe I’d like to write a book about his rowing days and he said he’d like that. But then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, ‘But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.’

The actual boat,  the old wooden The Husky Clipper, today rests on the top rack of the University of Washington boathouse.  It was built by George Popcock, internationally famous for designing and handcrafting the best and swiftest racing shells in the world of crew racing.  A native of England, he was recruited in 1912 to build shells for the University of Washington. The George Pocock Racing Shell Company in Seattle became the leading producer of quality racing shells in the country, making 80 percent of all those used by college crews in America. His boats were coveted by colleges and rowing clubs around the world. Among the innovations he developed were sliding seats, lightweight oars, special oarlocks, and a unique steering mechanism, replacing the tiller.

However, it was not only his craftsmanship in building that made Mr. Pocock unique, but the visionary philosophy he shared with the crew to strive constantly for the ideal and to respect the spiritual side of life. Each chapter begins with a photo and his quote, such as, “It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you’re near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul.”

Other characters on this elaborate world stage Brown reveals are the crew coaches of the day:  Tom Bolles, Al Ulbrickson and Ky Ebright—their coaching philosophies, their relationship to each other, their rivalries, losses and victories.  When Ulbrickson retired in 1959, he said one of the highlights of his career was the day he put Joe Rantz in his Olympic boat for the first time and watched the boat take off.  

We are also taken into Nazi Germany as they prepare for the Olympics.  We are given historical glimpses of key members of the Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propoganda, run by Joseph Goebbels. We learn of the brilliant Leni Riefenstahl, the first German female to produce and star in her own films. She won the affection of the Fuhrer as she produced many successful propaganda films , one which documented the massive Nazi rally at Nuremberg in 1934.   Her film of the 1936 Olympics was meant to record the splendors of the Reich, but nine boys from Washington denied her a proper ending.

In the author’s words, “It’s harder to imagine a starker representation of good and evil brought face-to-face than these nine American kids dressed in ragged old sweatshirts and mismatched shorts racing against regimented blonde oarsman in crisp white uniforms with swastikas on their chests.”

Back to Brown’s thoughts after his first meeting with Joe Rantz. “As more of his story unfolded I began to see the elements of a great tale there—intense competition amongst individuals, bitter rivalry between schools, a boy left alone in the world (Joe), a fiercely demanding coach, a wise mentor, a love interest, even an evil stepmother…and the climax of the story played out on an enormously dramatic stage—the 1936 Olympics, under the gaze of Hitler himself. What more could a story teller ask for?”

As a reader, I don’t think we could have asked for more.  And I, who knew zero about crewing, now have a tremendous respect for the sport. With Father’s Day approaching, this might be just the perfect gift for someone who loves a gripping tale.