Friday 3 April 2015

Brown, Daniel James "The Boys in the Boat"

Brown, Daniel James "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics" - 2013

So, I'm reading this with my real life international book club. Very interesting if you like non-fiction, real life, even if - like me - you don't like sports, there is so much in this book about humanity, perseverance, history ...

The world in 1936. The Nazis are "hosting" the Olympic Games. Hitler wants to show the world how brilliant his country (and his party and his race) is. He'd rather not have Jews or coloured athletes participate but that is against the Olympic spirit (even though he does managed to keep a lot of them out). So, he'd prefer to see them defeated. Which doesn't work all the way, as we all well know. Who doesn't remember Jesse Owen winning four gold medals in the sprint and long jump.

One of his hopes was the rowing competition, especially the Men's eights. "His" crew only made Bronze.

But it was not only the Nazis that needed to be beaten in this case. Eight boys from the lowest classes made it into a rowing team that until before had only been composed of rich students from elite universities. These boys didn't just have to row well, they had to study well and work to support not just themselves but in many cases even their family, brothers, sisters, parents ...

And this is their story. One man managed to write down what these young men had to go through in that time, how they achieved their dream and won Gold in an impossible race.

Daniel James Brown interviewed mainly one of the team for this extraordinary book, Joe Rantz, who had to fend for himself from a very early age, whose mother died when he was very young and whose father left him alone a couple of years later. How he managed to become one of the most successful athletes after that is a long story that is definitely worth reading.

We discussed this in our international book club in February 2015.

From the back cover:

"Out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times - the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.

Daniel James Brown’s stirring book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. It was an unlikely quest from the start - a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, who first had to maser the harsh physical and psychological demands of collegiate rowing and then defeat the East Coast's elite teams that had long dominated the sport.

The emotional heart of the story lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but to find a real place for himself in the world. Plagued by personal demons, a devastating family history, and crushing poverty, Joe knows that a seat in the Washington freshman shell is his only option to remain in college. The crew is slowly assembled by an enigmatic and determined coach and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat designer, but it is the boys' commitment to one another that makes them a winning team. Finally gaining the Olympic berth they long sought, they face their biggest challenge - rowing against the German and Italian crews under Adolf Hitler's gaze and before Leni Riefenstahl's cameras at the “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin, 1936.

Drawing on the boys’ own diaries and journals, their photos and memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream,  Daniel James Brown has created a portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and chronicle of one extraordinary young man's personal quest, all in this immensely satisfying book."


  1. I totally agree with you. Very interesting book even though I'm normally not a sports fan.

    1. Me, either. As I said on your blogpost, I would not have picked the book if it hadn't been a book club book since I'm not much interested in sports but I am glad we chose it.

      Thanks for stopping by,

    2. Looks like the link does not work, here it is again: