The Boys in the Boat shines the light on a dramatic point in American history—the time of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and the lead up to world War II and the great depression of the late 1930s. It is the story of how the University of Washington’s rowing team, young sons of loggers, farmers and fishermen, became front page news throughout the world and won Olympic gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. As the boys prepared for races against the University of California and other top teams, Hitler was launching the greatest propaganda program in history of the world. His chosen propagandist, Leni Riefenstal, produced a film that would introduce the world to a fictional Germany that hid the oppression and slaughter of Jews and other minorities. At the same time, the people of the United States were suffering the blows of a collapsed economy.
Brown’s telling of the rowing team centers around the life of one of the oarsmen, Joe Rantz, the glue of the story. Joe illustrates the emotional and physical character of all of the boys. Joe grew up in Squim, a small town in northern Washington on the Straights of Juan de Fuca. Joe’s mother died when he was 10 years old. His dad remarried a woman who did not like Joe and after a short time, Joe’s father moved away, taking Joe’s two siblings and leaving him to make his way alone at the age of 13. He eventually fell in love with Joyce, a talented pianist, whom he would later marry and build a happy married life. Meanwhile, his drive and determination saw him through high school, where his academic success led him to the University of Washington. It was there that Joe fell in love again, this time with crewing. From 1933 to 1936, Joe and other crew members, with the guidance of coach Al Ulbrickson and encouragement of boat designer George Pocock, developed the skills, determination, devotion, character and commitment that would form a team ready to compete in the 1936 Olympics. George Pocock also played a key role in helping Joe work through the hurt and pain of his childhood that was blocking his progress as a top oarsman.
The training was both physically and mentally brutal. The boys endured the harsh weather of the Pacific Northwest and the high winds, the pounding rain and cold temperatures of their home base on Lake Washington. The training stressed their bodies to the breaking point and the up again, down again of who was to be in the boat for the next race or the final Olympic team in ’36. This kept them constantly under mental stress.
By 1935, near the end of Joe’s junior year, as the author states, “Everything had converged: the right oarsmen, with the right attitudes, the right personalities, the right skills; a perfect boat, sleek, balanced and wickedly fast; a winning strategy at both long and short distances; a coxswain with the guts and smarts to make hard decisions and make them fast. It all added up to more than he could really put into words…something mysterious and ineffable and gorgeous to behold!” Al Ulbrlickson had finally selected the team that would compete in the Olympics.
Brown’s narration of the boat races pulled me right into the boat with the boys! Ubrlickson had always told his team to “keep your mind in the boat.” In the beginning the team made this their mantra: “MIB,” “Mind In Boat.” This advice helped the team stay focused on the race instead of on their pain or grades or girl friends. The coxswain’s job was to monitor the rowing, the condition of the water, and the boat’s place in relation to the other racers. Their strategy was to pace themselves carefully, and at the right time near the end of the race, to turn on the heat. The coxswain made the judgment and called to his team “give me 10!” Give me 10 more!” The team, in perfect synchronicity against a background of screaming fans and boat whistles, would cross the finish line in their sleek and endurable shell, the “Husky Skipper,” in a final burst, exhausted but jubilant!
Then their new mantra became “Let’s Go to Berlin,” “LGB,” and Ulbrickson, after much trial and error, selected the final crew to race in the varsity Olympic race in Berlin. As Al Ulbrickson stated, “At one time or another…Washington crews have won the highest honors in America. They have not, however, participated in the Olympic games. That’s our objective.” The teams had competed with the major teams on the West and East coasts, including against the great California crews that had won Olympic gold in 1928 and 1932.
The book also addresses the social change that was evolving in Germany as Hitler’s power increased. Coxswain Boboy Moch’s father revealed to him that he was Jewish, which had been his long hidden family secret. Many of the people they passed on the streets and in the shops as they explored the city of Berlin would soon be headed for cattle cars, the gas chambers and death. In the days before the Olympic race, the boys grew closer, began to calm and center themselves as they began the final journey from boys to men.
The book ends with the varsity race at the 1936 Olympics and a stunning win for “the boys in the boat” from the University of Washington.
I highly recommend this book and give it a 5-star rating.