Monday, April 3, 2017

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Rowing to Victory (Historical Novel)

You’ve most likely heard about Jesse Owens, the American track and field superstar who took home four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics. A movie about Owens, called “Race,” was released in 2016 about his jarring struggles to get there in a white America. 

You have probably read or seen the story of the long distance runner, Louis Zamperini, also racing for America at the same time in that same stadium.  Seven years later, Zamperini was captured in Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands after a plane crash which left him and two others adrift in the Pacific Ocean during WWII. The movie and book, “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand, details the torture he endured during his captivity.  

But do you know the story of the nine Americans on the rowing team who plowed their way to victory at those same Olympics? The Boys in the Boat highlights rowers stemming from the Washington State. These particular boys were not wealthy. They were sons of loggers, farmers, and other hard-working, blue-collar men. Many had to work their way into the university during the difficult times of the Great Depression, then work their way onto the rowing team, and ultimatley to the most celebrated athletic competition in the world.  This historical novel touches on all their lives, but centers on Joe Rantz, a boy determined to win not only in the in the boat but also in his harsh and challenging family life, where he has to fight to keep his head above waters.

This book is a departure from my normal reads or interests, since I’m not much of a competitive sports fan.  Gardening and reading are my sports. I have no desire to watch football, basketball, baseball, or any other games. That’s probably because I was never any good at sports myself. I was the loser always picked last among heavy groans and eyerolling from the team who ended up with me. In P.E. as we all waited our turn to swing the bat, I would continuously slide to the end of the line just as I was nearing the front. I stunk, and it was humiliating. I never felt the thrill of being on a team or excitement of watching any games. Well, I did play tennis, but I lost every, single game—no thrill there.

This book, however, brought me right into the spirit of the game. I got caught up in the excitement of it as I never have in real life.  And, yes, rowing is exciting.  Turns out there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.  The guys make it seem so easy as they gracefully glide on the water.  But I found out, it’s not easy. Not at all.

This book was extremely detailed.  At first I thought it was a tad too descriptive as Brown documents almost every stroke per minute the boys make. BUT it is those details that also made me feel like I was in the midst of it all. It’s the fine points that made me understand the game, made me imagine the energy and determination it takes to be part of the crew, what it’s like to train in the biting cold winter.  Brown’s descriptions brought me right into the action of the game and the time period. I felt like I was right there, watching it all. By the time we got to the Olympics, I could feel a palpable tension that had me reading at the edge of my seat.  My heart was racing, and I was cheering and whooping, and got all choked up at the end. I shared in their triumph as if I had been part of their team, as if I had rowed with them and brought home the gold. 

This book is a winner.  

You can be sure I'll be thinking of Joe and the guys this summer when I take the kayak out on the lake.  

As I mentioned this was a selection from by book club, and the rest of the group thought along the same lines as I mentioned above.  The book may be a tad over detailed, but it was GOOD.  Everyone gave it a thumbs-up.  There were so many details to discuss:  Joe's evil stepmother; the strength and synchronization it takes to be on a rowing team; the importance of the coxswain; how the losers have to give up their shirts to the winners; and how Hitler staged an illusion of astronomical proportions to make Germany look like a wholesome, wonderful community everyone would want to live in.  This is one unforgettable story, one unforgettable book. 

On another note, their story was made into a PBS documentary entitled "The Boys of '36."  I'll try to look for it and watch it.....after my husband has a chance to read the book, too.

UPDATE: July 2017. My husband just finished reading the book and he felt the same way.  He really enjoyed it. 

UPDATE: July 29, 2017. My sister and I took our kayak out on the lake today, and yes, I did think of Joe and the boys as we were out there, especially because it took a bit for us to get our paddling in sync on the double kayak--and there were only two of us rowing. 

It's fun when certain experiences conjure up memories of good books or vice versa. Here are some pictures of our perfect day on the water.

On Fernan Lake in Coeur d'Alene, ID.

Happy Reading,


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