Title: The Boys in the Boat
Rating: 4 Stars
One of the signs of a great non-fiction work is when you know how the book ends yet you still get caught up in the excitement and suspense of the action. Even though I knew that the Husky crew won the gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, I sweated every struggle and cheered their every triumph.
There are several focus points. One is Joe Rantz, one of the rowers in the boat. He had what could only be described as a heartbreaking childhood. As a young child, his mother dies and his dad promptly shifts him off to a distant aunt. Later his father remarries and he recalls Joe back. Later, his now step-mom, harboring a grudge against Joe, ultimately issues an ultimatum to Joe’s father, who decides to stay with his wife and quite literally abandons Joe to fend for himself. He’s fifteen at the time. And, oh yes, this was in the heart of the depression.
From all of this, he somehow manages to attend the University of Washington, working as a janitor and anything else he can get his hands on while wearing the same tattered clothes day after day.
He is one of the crew eight that wins a national championship, wins the Olympic trials, and ultimately travels to Berlin to compete and win gold there. In so doing, with his fellow crew mates, he finally develops the closeness and trust that he’s been lacking in his life.
The second focal point is the struggle for the UW crew to win gold. Over a period of several years, they face multiple setbacks but each time come back more determined.
The third focal point is Berlin and the efforts that Nazi Germany goes through to put a bright, fresh face to their country. Many months of preparation, temporarily setting aside their censorship and Jewish repression, and the overt propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl all together cast a facade over Nazi Germany that fooled many people, not least the US head of Olympics Avery Brundage.
Many people make this comparison but if you like the work of Laura Hillenbrand (which I do), then this book will be right up your alley.