Review of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
By JONATHAN KEIM
The 1936 Berlin Olympics foreshadowed the coming European war. Because no shots had been fired, however, the soon-to-be antagonists looked for symbols and propaganda victories. The Nazis, for instance, co-opted the Olympic heritage to reinforce the notion that the world had come to pay homage to the greatness of the Third Reich, and made every effort to show the world how wonderful Germany had become.
The most famous contrary storyline, of course, was that of African-American athlete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track events against purportedly superior German athletes. Although Owens’s victory was a symbolic victory only against the Nazis (on his return to the United States, Owens would be forced to ride the freight elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria to attend his victory reception there), it showed that the superiority of the Aryan athletes was nothing more than propaganda.
Less well known, however, is the storyline that Daniel James Brown pursues in The Boys in the Boat (2013). Brown follows an eight-man rowing crew from the University of Washington as the coach, Al Ulbrickson, painstakingly selects the team and guides it towards the 1936 Olympics. Brown’s narrative centers on Joe Rantz, who leaves a hardscrabble home life for a rowing scholarship at UW. Like many other working-class children, Rantz faces long odds as he attempted to climb the Depression-era economic ladder. One summer, for instance, Rantz finds himself getting paid by the Works Progress Administration to dangle from rocky cliffs with a jackhammer, a far cry from the internships at Wall Street finance shops sought by many modern rowers in elite rowing programs.
Although he has little family support, Rantz makes his way onto the UW varsity team. Ulbrickson selects his team based not on experience and rowing pedigree, but on grit. So it is no surprise that, despite the grind of rowing practices which seem designed to burn out even the toughest physical specimens, Rantz holds on even when many of his teammates do not. After all, he is on athletic scholarship: for Rantz, perseverance in rowing is the difference between permanent economic advancement and a return to his roots.
After a series of wins in the United States, the UW team is ultimately selected to compete as the American entry in the eight-man sweep rowing race (the “eights”) in Berlin. There, these children of American manual laborers would compete against hand-selected Nazi German and Fascist Italian crews.
Although the main Olympic action took place in Berlin, rowing races were held about 15 miles from Berlin, at Langer See in Grünau, Germany. Brown reminds us that the Nazis, as part of their plan to create a Germany free of any non-Aryan persons, had purged the Olympic areas of all gypsies and Jews. This purge included the shuttering of rowing clubs run by and for Jews, many of whom had been exiled. And Brown lets us know that most of these victims were either driven out or quietly rounded up well before the Olympics, lest the world see the Nazi project firsthand.
There is much to love about the book. Readers who are new to the sport of rowing will have little trouble understanding the terminology. Brown carefully explains each detail and its practical significance without becoming tiresome. In my favorite chapter, Brown takes nine pages to describe a six-minute race, but it never lags (in fact, it’s riveting). Rantz and his daughter were sources for much of the story, and consequently, Rantz is the most developed character. Yet other fascinating people sprinkled throughout, like the mysterious British boat craftsman George Pocock, give the book an almost cinematic feel.
Rounding out these characters are snippets of historical context, drawn from newspapers and other contemporaneous sources, which clearly communicate the sense of do-or-die importance that motivates the young rowers. Brown makes his points about anti-Semitism and other types of prejudice sensitively, such as when one of the rowers learns of his Jewish heritage just before leaving the United States for Germany. His anguish at having being deceived, yet pride in his new-found heritage, is moving. And any book that could make even this sturdy-hearted reader teary by the end of the Prologue deserves a kind word indeed.
Any wreath obtained through rowing will be perishable. Yet those of us running for the imperishable will learn much from the relentless dedication of these men. Although the book contains little in the way of reflection on the spiritual challenges of pursuing rigorous physicality, God’s common grace is very evident throughout the book. Brown never resorts to joyous rhapsodies about the triumph of the human spirit, focusing instead on the rowers’ quiet perseverance. As a former college rower myself, I saw in Brown’s characters the same gifts that I saw among my teammates and coaches: commitment, courage, love, and work ethic. It is my hope that those gifts will increase in myself and anyone else who reads the book.