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The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown, Viking Penquin, 2013, 370 pp
In 1936, the varsity crew of the University of Washington's rowing team went to the Olympic Games in Berlin and took the Gold Medal in eight-oared rowing. That is known historical fact. When Daniel James Brown published The Boys in the Boat in 2013, the world learned the back story to that achievement. What a story it is.
The author was a neighbor of Joe Rantz, one of the crew members. Close to the end of his life, Joe Rantz was ill and being cared for by his daughter. She happened to be reading aloud to Joe, Brown's earlier book, Under a Flaming Sky. The old man wanted to meet the author since he had been a friend of Angus Hay, Jr, who featured in that book. Thus Brown's next book was born, a story almost as good as the book itself.
Due to Joe's daughter having kept all manner of records and stories about Joe's life and about the rowing team, Joe is the central character. He also told as much as he could to Daniel James Brown over a series of interviews in 2007 before passing away in September.
This is a story of triumph by a bunch of young men who grew up in the Great Depression, most of them in and around Seattle. I was struck by how hard life was for people in those times; people who had no safety net. I have read a good deal about that period in American history but no other book I've read has brought so much day to day insight into those people's lives.
It is also a story about how a great team is made, about rowing and the boats. About being a rowing coach. And about George Yeoman Pocock, the builder of most of the boats in use at that time and the guru of rowing technique.
By contrasting life as it was for the boys leading up to the Olympics with what was happening in Germany under the rise of Hitler, the story is broadened and laid into the stream of world history as it were.
All of this makes for a powerful book and took me by surprise. I have always preferred novels to any other kind of reading material and even to movies. Somehow I have let more and more non-fiction stray into my reading, in part due to my many wonderful reading groups with the democratic way we bring books to each others' attention. In fact, that is how I came to read The Boys in the Boat and our discussion was one of the best.
(The Boys in the Boat is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)