Friday, July 19, 2013

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

"When you get the rhythm in an eight, it's pure pleasure to be in it. It's not hard work when the rhythm comes--that "swing" as they call it. I've heard men shriek out with delight when that swing came in an eight; it's a thing they'll never forget as long as they live."
--George Yeoman Pocock

If I told you one of the most propulsive reads you will experience this year is the non-fiction story of eight rowers and one coxswain training to attend the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, you may not believe me. But you’d need to back up your opinion by reading this book first, and you will thank me for it. Daniel James Brown has done something extraordinary here. We may already know the outcome of that Olympic race, but the pacing is exceptional. Brown juxtaposes descriptions of crew training in Seattle with national races against the IV League in Poughkeepsie; we see developments in a militarizing Germany paired with college competitions in depression-era United States; individual portraits of the “boys” (now dead) are placed alongside cameos of their coaches; he shares details of the early lives of a single oarsman, Joe Rantz, with details of his wife's parallel experiences.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin was the stuff of legend, when Jesse Owens swept four gold medals in field and track, but a Washington crew team won that summer also, against great odds. How that victory took place and how a group of great athletes became great competitors is something Daniel James Brown spent five years trying to articulate. Quotes from George Pocock, crafter of cedar shells, head each chapter, sharing his experience watching individual oarsmen become a team.

At various times I have heard sports like baseball or golf, and now crew, described as “the thinking man’s game.” I like to imagine that any sport, particularly a team sport, is best performed when one is thinking. Surely strategies and tactics are involved. But when a team sport is performed fast and in key, there is something organic in its growth and peak performance that transcends “thinking.”

For one thing, there is the sustained coordinated rhythm of many bodies performing as one, starting from zero and demanding as much as two hundred heartbeats per minute in a sprint, erasing the individual and coalescing into something much bigger than each individual effort could achieve. This particular crew overcame the usual and expected race-day catastrophes to deliver the sweetest win they or their coaches had ever experienced. It is a story at the time and on the level of the historic Seabiscuit victory: speaking of the horse, the race, and the book by Hillenbrand.

One of the things about a great book is the energy one derives from having encountered it. Great teachers generate interest in a subject and Brown did that in this book. Even if you have no knowledge or interest in rowing before you begin, you will be fascinated by the end. In addition, Brown tells us some things about the Third Reich and Leni Reifenstahl’s photography for Hitler and of the 1936 Olympics that makes me want to revisit that film record. Reifenstahl had taken pictures (after the event) of the rowing crews from inside their boats, among other things, and when the film Olympia came out two years later, it cemented her reputation as a great filmmaker. Of course she is best known for creating the great propaganda film, Triumph of the Will . She used camera angles and techniques that had never been done before and were extraordinarily successful in supporting the political machine that was Germany in the 1930s.

A film version of The Boys in the Boat is scheduled, reputedly with Kenneth Branagh directing, which is sure to capture further interest in this remarkable story. A radio interview with Daniel James Brown is available to download from San Francisco radio station KLLC (radioalice). In it Daniel James Brown shares a little of his narrative non-fiction technique of keeping readers dangling at critical moments and turning instead to talk of parallel events to keep the tension high. He does it better than almost anyone—writers take note!

I believe I can guarantee this title—either you or someone close to you will find this a riveting summer read. I am pleased to be able to offer a giveaway of this title through August 15, 2013-- just enough time for you to receive it and read it before summer ends. So all of you unsure whether nonfiction is your “thing,” put aside your reservations, add your name to the list, and see if this story doesn’t float your boat. Viking Penguin shared this book with me in exchange for an honest review.

Giveaway completed 8/15/13


PBS special on the Boys in the Boat posted August 2016

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

1 comment:

  1. I was *glued* to every second of this PBS film recently for the incredible sides of Nazism it showed (both overt and subtle senses of eugenics and "race" superiority) and somehow missed knowing it was first a book until seeing your Tweet! Exciting frame of perspective for studying history.