Thursday, September 5, 2013

#52 (2013/CBR5) "The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

I was immediately drawn in by the cover of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (2013) by Daniel James Brown, on display at my local bookstore. I've never gone to a school that had a rowing team, known the experience of rowing on the water, or even seen a rowing race in person, but my ex-boyfriend was a very serious rower for quite some time. In fact, he taught me good rowing technique on the rowing machines at the gym. So, even though the sport of rowing is foreign to me, reading this story still felt very personal--like I was getting a better understanding of the life my ex had before I met him.

Although my ex may have been one reason why I picked up The Boys in the Boat, the reason I kept reading was because it was fascinating--exactly the kind of non-fiction book that I love to read. It was detailed, historical, and well-researched, but with a page-turning flow and focus on the real lives and struggles of regular people. And all the action took place within the context of world-changing events, including: the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the rise of Germany before World War II. The rowing was suspenseful with descriptions that made it understandable and interesting for rowers and non-rowers alike. Not only did I learn a lot about the prestigious history of rowing in the United States, but I was thoroughly entertained as I learned more about the boys that came together to make an unbeatable team.

Brown begins and ends the story with Joe Rantz, whose life, if it were depicted in a movie (and this book screams to be made into a movie), would be considered too dramatic and unbelievable. Abandoned by his family at an early age, in the middle of the Great Depression, Joe Rantz depends on himself and manages through determination and incredibly hard work to survive and get into the University of Washington. Brown follows Rantz in his freshman year as he goes out for the rowing team, his freshman races, the struggles during their sophomore year and the team that finally gelled their junior year. Interspersed throughout are  details about the economic struggle during those years, the famed boat builder George Pocock, and the rise of Germany as well as American's attitude's towards the country before, during, and after the Olympics held there in 1936. If you look deeply enough, every person who has made it to the Olympic level has a fascinating story to tell because you can't get there without both incredible struggle and triumphs. Brown focused on one person, and then one team and told their story while allowing the historical details and context to hint at all of the other amazing stories going on at the time. I really liked this book, probably my favorite non-fiction of the year so far.

I just had one complaint at the end of the book. Brown discusses how Don Hume, the stroke man was deathly ill the day of the gold medal race. In fact, Hume lost it during the race and almost fainted. But there was no resolution after the race. I was desperate to see if he was okay, but all Brown said was that the boys (except for Joe) went out and celebrated until 4:30 a.m. Did Hume go out and party with everyone? Because, if so, he couldn't have been as sick as Brown suggested. It was frustrating not to know.

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