In 1936 nine young men from Washington State went to the Olympics in Berlin. Their story is recorded in the New York Times bestseller Boys in the Boat. Daniel Brown carefully crafts their story from journal entries, newspaper clippings, historical documents, and stories told to their family about the unforgettable experience. The narrative reads like a novel rather than the non-fiction biography it is.
Of the nine the heart of the story revolves around one in particular (though I suspect they each had similar background having all survived the Great Depression). Joe Rantz was within months of dying when Brown initially contacted him to begin writing the story of this Olympic team. Joe’s story is heartbreaking at best but shines with determination and grit. Abandoned by his family, he learns how to taps into inner strength and find the ability to survive.
At one point, each of the boys on the Olympic team had to face a similar decision. Am I a victim or survivor?
Their remarkable story together begins in the fall of 1933 as college students working to find their place on the freshman crew team. Each new to rowing to one degree or another, they find what George Pocock describes as a religion in the discipline of Crew.
The Symbolism of Pocock
George Pocock was one of my favorites in the book. As the visionary craftsman behind the winning boat, his shop was set up in the upper level of Washington State’s shell house. Because rowing was as religion to these Crews, Pocock was considered their religious leader, having a glimpse of the divine as he worked the wood for each boat. His introspective approach helped these nine boys come to terms with the parallels of rowing and life. He taught them how to reach deep within to find their real heart as they learned how to direct their passion into one common cause. Pococks wise words grace the header of each chapter — full of meaning and depth.
While these boys were changing, and improving in skill and wisdom, Germany was preparing for their own changes. Hitler was busy setting a stage for the world to view his new and improved Germany — all to be seen through the 1936 Olympic lens. This underlying story was woven through various chapters, giving small glimpses into the atrocities Germany was preparing for.
I’ve always been drawn to historical fictions, especially from this time period. There is something about the ugliness of the Nazi regime mixed with the determination to survive. The good conquering evil has always been intriguing to me. I loved Brown’s poetic style of writing. He had a beautiful way of bringing the story of all nine boys together into one cohesive whole. Their grit alone motivates me to try a little harder in my own life. Definitely, one to add to your reading list.
My favorite quotes
“It wasn’t just what the Englishman was saying, or the soft, earthy cadence of his voice, it was the calm reference with which he talked about the wood — as if it was something holy and sacred about it — that drew Joe in. The wood, Pocock murmured, taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over diversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves. About the reasons we are all here…
“He talked about camber and the life imparted to a shell when would was put under tension. He talked about the underlying strength of the individual fibers in cedar, and how coupled with their resilience, they gave the wood its ability to bounce back and resume its shape, whole and intact, or how, under steam and pressure, they could take a new form and hold it forever. The ability to yield, to bend, to give away, to accommodate, he said, was sometimes a source of strength in men as well as in wood, so long it was as it was helmed by into resolve and by principal.
“He said for him the craft of building a boat was like religion. It wasn’t enough to master the technical details of it. You had to give yourself up to it spiritually; you had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart. Rowing is like that. And a lot of life is like that too, the parts that really matter anyway.” (George Pocock p. 214-215)
A Few More
“In the last few hundred meters of the race, in the searing pain and bewildering noise of that final furious sprint, there had come a singular moment when Joe realized with startling clarity that there was nothing more he could do to win the race, beyond what he was already doing. Except for one thing. He could finally abandon all doubt, trust absolutely without reservation…”(p. 355)
“Men as fit as you, when your everyday strength is gone, can draw on a mysterious reservoir of power far greater. Then it is that you can reach for the stars. That is the way champions are made.” George Pocock
Brown, Daniel James. The Boys in the Boat. Penguin Books, New York. 2013.