Author: Daniel James Brown
For the most part, the story is told from the point of view of Joe Rantz, one of the oarsmen. Essentially abandoned by his own family in his teens, he learned to survive on his own and put himself through college. Crew provided a sense of purpose and belonging. It also gave him a fantastic tale to tell for the rest of his life. Through him, we get a sense not only of the group's extraordinary achievements but of the devastating impact the Great Depression had on the lives of families all over the country.
The most endearing characters of the book, however, are George Pocock, the boat builder at Washington, and Bobby Moch, the crew's coxswain. Pocock overcame his own humble London origins to become a giant in the rowing world. He supplied boats for Washington as well as most of the other major programs in the United States. He also provided sage, invaluable mentoring for the coaches and rowers who came through the Washington program.
As for Moch, a crew's coxswain is inevitably the object of curiosity. The little man or woman in a sport of giants, the cox steers the boat and manages the stroke rate for the oarsmen. He (or she) is the only one facing forward and therefore the one with the best sense of the boat's position in relation to the competition, not to mention the finish line. Moch, in particular, is quite the fearless smart ass. His downright ballsy decision-making leads the team to greatness. His personal history also provides an astonishing wrinkle towards the end of the book.
Of course, there's another essential backstory to all of this. The Boys in the Boat also covers the Third Reich's preparations for the 1936 Olympics. I visited Berlin's Olympic Stadium when I was eleven. My knowledge of the event was limited to that of an average sports fan - i.e., I knew about Jesse Owens and not much else. Jesse Owens, by any measure, was one of the most extraordinary athletes of his era and his four gold medals, heralded as the symbolic victory of a black man over the Nazis, is one of the great sports stories of the 20th century. But the sad fact of the matter - for Owens, for the Washington crew, for the whole Olympic movement - is that the USA and its allies probably should have stayed away completely. The Olympics were a triumphant, public relations bonanza for Hitler and his cronies. They successfully deceived the world into believing that the horrifying rumors surrounding their regime were exaggerated. If ever there were an Olympics to boycott, it was the '36 Games in Berlin. But the world chose to look the other way, a decision made all the easier here by the plague of anti-Semitism in the United States. And before we all wear out our arms patting ourselves on the back over Jesse Owens, it's worth remembering that it would still be another 28 years before the Civil Rights Act passed. Brown's book pulls few punches, providing a sobering picture indeed.
The Boys in the Boat is an emotional experience. As a sports fan, I was grateful for the insight into a sport I know nothing about. As a student of history, I am humbled by those who overcame the considerable challenges of the era. I recommend the book highly to anyone with an interest in the time period, whether they know anything about rowing or not.