The Boys in the Boat* was one of my favorite reads of 2014, and it’s a perfect book to read between Super Bowl and March Madness.
My good friend and fellow blogger, Jennie Locati, recommended “The Boat” for its combination of sports, politics, triumph against the odds, and local Seattle history she knew I would love.
The story is set in 1930’s depression-era Seattle, and follows the 9-man University of Washington varsity crew team, their coach and boat-maker, in their quest for, and ultimate victory, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Along the way, the “farm boys” from Seattle have to defeat rivals from Cal Berkeley and the elite East Coast teams, and then, after an historic fundraising effort spearheaded by Royal Brougham (yes, that’s a real person!), go to Berlin and meet Hitler himself.
The central character, Joe Rantz, one of the eight Husky oarsmen, was not my favorite character. He was a great choice to tell the story, because he was so clearly representative of the era, with modest roots and many struggles along the way.
I identified more with the boys’ coach, Al Ulbrickson, and the story of his rivalry with the Berkeley squad. Perhaps most interesting (for a geek like me), was the British boat-maker, George Pocock, who took up residence at UW, built boats for both UW and their rivals, and brought a humble combination of wisdom, craftsmanship and engineering genius.
My favorite moments in the story:
- The Huskies travel to the East Coast to compete with the Ivy League teams to represent the US in Berlin. I’m a U. Penn grad, and Penn turns out to be a big villain, using a secret weapon to try to scuttle the UW’s Olympic hopes.
- An interesting sidetrack explored the rivalry between Leni Riefenstahl, called “the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century,” and Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.
- The stories and images of Depression-era Seattle. For anyone who thinks today’s cities are dirty, grimy places, the Hooverville shantytowns of the 30’s – with their lack of sanitation/plumbing, and rows upon rows of leaky tar paper shacks – is a shocking reminder of how so many Americans lived just a few generations ago.
- The descriptions of the freezing cold practices and races, the grueling hard work (“like my insides had been scrubbed with a metal brush”) and ultimately the perfection of the “swing” – that perfect flow where every ounce of synchronized crew effort translates to the boat, which literally flies over the surface of the water.
Brown gives us a vivid explanation of how “the boat” encompasses so much more that that thing in the water:
…Watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both—it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience—a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.
Reread the paragraph above and replace “Joe” with “Russell”, and you’ll understand why I love sports and the timeless stories they tell.
Please post back if you have a favorite sports book or story.