In “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Quest for the Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” Daniel James Brown explores an extraordinary moment in sports history that is almost forgotten, in the vein of Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” and Mark Frost’s “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Indeed, Brown himself alludes to Seabiscuit’s race against War Admiral as an analog for the rise of West Coast colleges competing in the Ivy League-dominated Poughkeepsie Regatta.
The underdogs here are the members of the University of Washington eight-oar rowing team, who ultimately represent the United States in Berlin. To make an epic out of a climactic race that’s over in less than seven minutes, Brown begins years earlier, providing short coming-of-age stories for two of his future protagonists. One is Joe Rantz, who is abandoned by his family and effectively homeless before he graduates from high school. His unlikely reinvention of himself as a competitor in an aristocratic sport is a great story, one that seems both quintessentially American and of the era.
The other is George Pocock, who is raised in the boathouse at Eton and goes on to make the world’s best racing boats (called “shells”). Pocock makes the shells for Washington and all of their competitors, while mentoring the Huskies coaches and crew members with a moral philosophy based on the sport. When Joe struggles, the coach asks Pocock to help the boy. Brown knows this relationship is the heart of the story and milks it for all it is worth. One can’t help but imagine the rising star/established thespian who might be paired in the planned movie (Hugh Laurie, an accomplished rower whose father appears in the book as a member of the British crew, would make a good Pocock).
To interest readers who aren’t fans of rowing, Brown plays up the historical angles of the story with cinematic gusto: There are scenes of wet freshmen competing for a spot on the University of Washington crew, followed by images of Nazi Joseph Goebbels smiling over the plans for the Reichssportfeld; a train ride home after a regatta is backdropped by panoramic descriptions of the Dust Bowl. Some of these passages could have been left on the cutting room floor, such as descriptions of labor riots in Seattle or a testament to the documentary film innovations of Leni Riefenstahl; though interesting enough on their own, they are only loosely connected to the story.
They are also unnecessary, because Brown has picked his subject and central characters well, telling their story with knowledge and passion. “The Boys in the Boat” makes for absorbing and sometimes thrilling reading, even by people who have no previous interest in rowing.
Kurtis Scaletta is the author of several books of youth, most but not all of them sports-related. He received the Readers’ Choice prize at the Minnesota Book Awards in 2012.