Tuesday, July 21, 2015

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

Joe Rantz is an unlikely hero in this nonfiction tale about nine boys that went to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The son of a tinkerer who had many jobs, Joe was kicked out of his family home during the Depression because they were not able to feed him and his stepmom didn't want him around. He had to fend for himself as a ten-year-old and later as a teenager as hard times hit. This upbringing made the college-age Joe that went out for the rowing team, much different than a kid of growing up privileged. Rowing requires mental and physical toughness that tests athletes in extreme ways. Joe had the right makeup, but he also needed to learn to trust his fellow teammates. The author shows how Joe matures along with the other nine rowers in a way that make them stronger as one unit versus individually. This inspirational book was hard for me to put down.

Daniel James Brown learned about Joe's rowing career directly from him and other family members and it sure-as-heck shows in the plot. Brown's intimate details on Joe's feelings make it read like a narration, brimming with drama and suspense. The story is rounded out with historical details on the Depression and the war as German Nazi's rose to power. The details of foliage, trees, and animals from the Northwest create a strong setting and it is easy to get lost in the story as it unfolds.

The details of rowing do not bog down the plot as it is balanced by the emotional, human story of Joe Rantz's strange upbringing. Brown juggles the story elements well and uses tension in competition, The Depression, and Nazi Germany to ratchet the drama up several notches. The cheating that was done to try to win the race does paint the Germans as one-dimensional villains, but Brown also shows Germany's attempt to be equal with other world powers. The Ministry of Propaganda was a ruthless way to push a glorified image of Germany that hid its dark intolerant and superior side.

This tale reminded me of "Unbroken," because it is a story of triumph and survival in difficult times. Brown's research is impressive as he tackles the intricacies of rowing along with giving a historical overview of the tough times facing people in the 1930s. He dramatizes the slumps the rowers go through during different seasons and builds to an exciting climax. My husband and I just moved to Seattle and are going to trek to the University of Washington's Conibear Shellhouse to see the "Husky Clipper" rowboat that was used in the 1936 games. I can't wait. Don't miss this one.

5 Smileys

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