The Boys in the Boat

This is a fantastic, enjoyable book about a group of blue-collar kids who came together to conquer the Nazis in the 1936 Olympics, held in Germany during the buildup to WW2. It is told primarily about Joe Rantz, who the author interviewed in the late 2000s before his death, and is a masterful work of storytelling. He has an engaging and beautiful story about hard times, hard work, and the indomitable spirit of human kind. I highly recommend this book to anybody looking for inspiration and a great story.

The story starts out telling the story about the early 1900s, when the northwest was a pretty desolate place. Life was hard, required frequently moving to find work, and there was not a lot of opportunity to move up in the world. To pile upon that idea, the stock market crash and Great Depression wiped out even the modest wealth that had built up, and Joe Rantz was faced with significant life challenges. His mother died when he was young, and when his father remarried, she despised the child that her husband brought to the marriage. At the tender age of 11, her mother and father and step-siblings left their small town, and left him behind. He was forced to make his own way, learn how to contribute to society, and to rely upon nobody but himself. He learned how to forage for food, to work hard, and he became tall and strong. Chance events brought him to the University of Washington, where he tried out for and joined the rowing team. Back in those days, rowing was one of the top team sports, and communities across America (especially on the East and West coasts) followed their local teams religiously. There are a lot of wonderful characters in the story that I’m not going to name, but it was a glorious cast of characters.

Joe obviously makes the team, joining the freshman eight-man boat, and they row like few have before. They win surprising races, and their coach sees them as potential Olympic athletes. The next year they underperform, causing their coach headaches, but ultimately many of them make the varsity boat, along with some of the class below them and a coxswain a year older than them. This group forms the boat that Coach Ulbrickson decides will race to make the Olympics. They face a range of challenges, but ultimately win the American races and qualify as Olympians. Shortly after, they are told that — due to the Great Depression — they will have to pay their own way. These blue-collar boys are devastated, as most didn’t have enough money to even travel to the competitions without some assistance. The city of Seattle, however, pulls together with nearby towns and raises $5,000 in under 48 hours and pays their way. They make their way across the pond, and ultimately land in Germany. Their lead rower comes down with a terrible illness on the ship and throughout their time in Germany, hardly able to row. He competes in the time trials, when the boys win and make the finals, but the morning of the finals, he is so sick that the coach decides to replace him. The other boys in the boat object, and say that they’ll carry him, but that they need him. The coach ultimately obliges, and they basically carry him into the boat. The race itself is incredible in its intensity, and the description in the book is enthralling. They have the hardest draw, in the middle of the river, which makes their path the hardest. Their leader is so horribly sick that he can hardly sit up straight. They fall behind and when the coxswain asks him to increase the pace, he nearly passes out and doesn’t respond. And yet — as he’s about to switch to ask #2 to lead, he steps up and ups the pace and everybody responds beautifully. They accelerate to catch the leaders, and (there’s an amazing picture at this point in the book!) ultimately they win the gold medal by six tenths of a second.

The book basically wraps up at this point, though it has intertwined a fascinating dimension of Nazi propaganda throughout the story. He tells the remainder of the life stories of each of the boys in the boat, how they supported the USA during WW2 and what they did after, and recounted the facts that this group gathered every year, and that they rowed together every ten years in honor of their accomplishment. It’s a really inspiring story, and I loved reading it.