This is an incredibly interesting book. David James Brown has written a story about an extraordinary group of nine young men who rowed to Olympic glory in the 1936 Berlin Olympics representing USA. Most of the material for this book comes from the surviving members of the crew.
These young men came from backgrounds far different than many other University teams that had vied for a place on the rowing squad. They were lumbermen, dairy farmers, ship and mine workers – hard physical jobs. They were from the University of Washington – not from families of privilege, but setting their sights on a higher education. These boys had no idea from one University year to the next, if they could meet their tuition and living expenses for the coming year.
This book also covers the history of building racing shells and the extraordinary people involved in this industry. English boat builder, George Pocock was one of these people. In 1927, George revolutionised the building of these shells by using a low-density wood called Western Cedar. He found he could strap sheets of weed over the frame of a boat forcing them to conform to shape. He then covered the whole assembly with heavy blankets and diverted steam from the Shell House heating system. When he turned off the steam and removed the blankets three days later the cedar held its shape, only requiring gluing and finishing.
Daniel James Brown learned about Joe Rantz’s career only when he knocked on his daughter Judy’s door as Joe lay dying. Joe told his story to Brown and with this story he then did more research into the other men in the team and the circumstances from which the team came about. Joe was born, the second son, in March 1914. He had an elder brother Fred. Their mother died of throat cancer when Joe was very young. His father fled to Canada not able to cope with the loss of his young wife. Fred finishes his education, comes home and marries. They take Joe to live with them. Joe’s story represents the other young men who eventually became part of the University of Washington’s team into the Olympic Games in Berlin.
Hitler was in power. He was considering cancelling the Berlin Olympics, but decided that this would give the rest of the world, namely the USA and Britain, the opportunity to witness first hand this wonderful “New Germany”. Brown describes the political background against which the Olympics was held in great detail.
Brown digs deep into the dynamics of rowing and pulls together a very good yarn, based on diaries, photos and recounts from various sources.
As a person of no athletic ability whatsoever, I found this an incredible book. One of bravery – bravery of the citizens of Germany, bravery of the men and women involved in this gripping yarn, bravery of the circumstances they had all come from and the incredible sportsmen and woman of that era. No sportsman or woman was paid for competing. There was no sponsorship – all competitors made the Olympic teams entirely on their own merits. They had no team doctors or physios and the other many and varied support crew that now are associated with Olympic and Commonwealth Games.
I commend Daniel James Brown for bringing this story to print and to life. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, even if at times, I felt a bit overwhelmed by facts and details.
Reviewed By Christine Frayling
The Boys in the Boat
by Daniel James Brown
Published by Macmillan