Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Boys in the Boat

I cried when I finished reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. For days I'd been getting to know nine rugged college boys from the University of Washington who had met on the dock of Lake Washington and had survived the grueling tryouts for the freshman rowing team. I had followed their college career and ridden in the boat with them as they participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. I had watched them come together as a team, individuals who had finally learned to trust one another and become one. And now it was time to tell them good-bye.

I was in the middle of the book when the Seattle Seahawks won the Superbowl, and now, as I close the cover, the Sochi Olympics have just begun. What a perfect time to have been reading The Boys in the Boat.

Daniel James Brown wasn't born until 15 years after the USA sent the Washington Huskies to the Berlin Olympics, but reading his account is like hearing the story firsthand. Through his narrative we meet Joe Rantz, a boy whose struggles through his youth forced him to manage for himself, cutting trees, fishing, and any kind of manual work he could find. One summer he swung from a harness at Grand Coulee, chipping away at the granite mountains to prepare for the building of Coulee Dam. 

From the enigmatic Al Ulbrickson, head coach at the University of Washington, to George Pocock, master rowing shell builder, to Royal Brougham, sports reporter for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, to the other team members, we meet a wonderful slate of colorful characters. Even the brief introductions of minor players leave the reader wishing to have known them in person.

The story of the ultimate triumph of these young men, surviving in the face of unbelievable obstacles, is told with dignity and grace. Brown brings the macro-view of the struggle of the human spirit together with the global view of world events to give the reader that You-Were-There perspective. 

Each race, each stroke during a race, became my own as the words on the page translated to sights, sounds, smells, and my own aching muscles and racing heartbeat. But it wasn't just the story of the boys in the Husky Clipper. It is also the story of Germany's overarching scheme to present a squeaky clean image to the world through the 1936 Olympics. While Hitler and his team orchestrated every detail of the Olympics to convince the world of Germany's greatness, nine boys in a boat gave everything they had and showed what true greatness is.

My hat is off to Daniel James Brown, a masterful storyteller, for bringing this story to life!

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