A couple years ago, a friend of mine read this for a book club they were in and, when they mentioned it to me in passing, for some reason I thought it was about a team that rowed TO the Olympics, not IN the Olympics. That mostly doesn’t mean anything, but it’s kinda funny. Anyways, my current long-distance book club wanted to read something about the Olympics this month, since THEY’RE HERE (I am HYPE – I love the Olympics)!! I honestly haven’t looked that much into Olympics-based nonfiction, but I was a bit surprised by how few options there were. So, this single book I’ve heard about before, re: the Olympics, is the one that we voted to read.
The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar men’s crew team that traveled to Berlin on the eve of WWII representing the United States in the quest for a gold medal. This team, made primarily of the sons of blue-collar workers (loggers, farmers, shipyards workers, etc.), was in stark contrast to the teams from elite eastern universities (and British universities) that had long dominated the sport. The author focuses the story on a few key people, including team member Joe Rantz (a teen with little family and even littler means whose emotional turn as he becomes one of the boys in the boat made for a great “heart” of the story), gruff coach Al Ulbrickson, and the eccentric/visionary British rower and boat-builder George Pocock (who found a racing-shell-building home at the University of Washington and became an integral part of the team’s equipment and moral strength). In addition to these main characters, if you will, Brown also gives insight into the backgrounds of all the 9 men on the team, including their reasons for getting into rowing, the way they all ended up in this varsity boat together, and the ups and downs they faced coming together as a tight-knit single-unit of rowing perfection and interpersonal connection.
Honestly, I went into this one expecting it to be…dry. Although I use a rowing-erg a lot with working out, I was struggling to imagine how I could be kept interested in hundreds of pages of writing about it, even with having an actual frame of reference. Well, on that front, I have to give the author a lot of credit (and a shoutout to the audiobook, which was also very helpful). He did a wonderful job crafting a story that felt compelling to read. Including history of the United States of the time (during and immediately post the Great Depression), a general history/background of rowing as a sport, the popularity of rowing within the US at the time and the rise in prowess of rowers from the West coast, as well as a leadup to the Olympics from an international point of view (specifically, the rise of Hitler in Germany – I actually learned quite a bit I hadn’t known before about the propaganda efforts of the Nazi’s) and within the context of internal and global anti-Semitism. Brown set the scene(s) with detail and explicit clarity that really added depth and nuance to the story. Weaving in the personal stories of the athletes and coaching team, particularly the ones I mentioned above, gave this work a nice mix of the personal and the more expansive, the individual meets history. Plus, who doesn’t love an emotional story with a triumphant ending, especially when it’s against the odds?
There were a few points that I was less interested in and/or could have used more of. I think, and I get that this was the basis for the book, a few times I got a little annoyed by the level of preachiness that I felt in talking about the difficulty of rowing and the way it was often paralleled with life. I mean, it was a good arc and some aspects of it felt fine, I just think it might have been a little overdone. Also, I know I mentioned the “scene setting” as a major “plus,” but do still I think some things were missing. It leaned heavily into the “Germany = BAD” trope, as well as the savior complex of America in the time period. Obviously I am not saying that Hitler/Nazism/anti-Semitism aren’t absolutely not acceptable, but it just felt too simplistically presented, considering the clear depth of the research and the recognition (but heavy glossing over) of similar sentiments within the US. Like, one of the (American) boys “finds out” he’s Jewish right before leaving because his family kept it a secret from him because they felt they needed to… Plus, there were a couple instances where feminist and racist realities were similarly, if not more so, glossed over. I mean, I know that wasn’t necessarily the focus of the book, but giving the rest of the context (like socio-economics of the Great Depression), without similar recognition of other issues of the time is really an unfair and not realistic setting. And the options were opened up, with mention of Jesse Owens and a “colored” restaurant owner and the dismissal of a female from the Olympic team for “immoral” actions. I just felt like, either mention them and call it all what it was, or focus solely on the boys in the boat and leave out the rest. Just my two cents.
In the end, I really did find myself enjoying this book. I was surprised by how interested I was in the unfolding drama of how the team came together and what their gold-medal race represented on an international scale. Although I think I would have gotten bogged down by the physical book (though I did have it on hand for reference and to see the photos that were included!), I really felt pulled along by the audio and was genuinely into picking it back up every time I had a moment. Some context pieces could definitely have been more honest and representative, but the titular story was told really well. An unexpected/underdog sports story has the power to move hearts on a grand scale like few other things do, and I think Brown captured that emotion perfectly.