Friday, January 23, 2015

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown

1936 Olympics Crew Gold MedalThis novelistic approach in The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown (Viking 2013), to the story of how the 1936 University of Washington crew team won the Olympics gold medal uses a novelistic approach that left me wary.  Brown describes the main figures of his story in detail, recounts their speech, tells us what they are thinking.  Clearly some inventive license is taken.  Yet his research notes and his account of his sources make clear that in writing the book he drew from letters, diaries, published articles, interviews with some of the characters and with their relatives in other cases, journal entries, newspaper articles, meteorological records, and historical studies. Detailed notes are included at the end of the book, and the author indicates his web site will list 1,000 endnotes (they were listed as “coming soon” when I checked).

Brown develops the book around the character of Joe Rantz, whose hard life as a Washington native made him an unlikely candidate for a crew team.  He tried out for the team in an effort to find an activity that would help pay his way through college.

Other important characters are Joe’s girlfriend and future wife Joyce, his coach Al Ulbrickson, and the man who builds the “shells” on which the team races, George Pocock.  Statements by Pocock serve as introductory epigrams for each chapter.  They document his view of crew as a way of life, as a philosophical approach to living, an art.  The epigrams make him the Zen master of this book, which is as much about perseverance and dedication to a craft as it is about victory in a competition. 

The Boys in the Boat is a book in the vein of the Lauren Hillenbrand books on Seabiscuit and Louis Zamperini.  Hillenbrand is effective at embedding her stories in the larger history of the times.  Brown tries the same approach, and to some extent succeeds.  However, he seems to force the issue a bit by trying to tie the story of the crew team members to the Dust Bowl and Depression, and this is not wholly convincing.  He’s more convincing in his portrayal of the economic differences between the mostly working class University of Washington team and the upper class teams from the East—Harvard, Yale, and so on.

Photo credit: Univ. of Washington

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