By John Hanlon
Several weeks ago, the George Clooney-directed feature The Boys in the Boat arrived in theaters nationwide. The film, which was inspired by a true story, was adapted from the book The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Although the feature is solid and inspiring (read our review here), the book offers a much more detailed and contextualized vision of the remarkable tale.
Like the feature, the book focuses on Joe Rantz, a student at the University of Washington who sees joining the rowing team as a way to stay in school.
Although the film hints at Rantz's difficult past, Daniel James Brown's book delves into the hard-to-read details. After Joe’s mother dies at an early age, Brown reveals how Joe's stepmother Thula treated him after marrying Joe's father, Harry. After Thula got annoyed caring for her stepson as well as her own children, she pushes Joe out the door.
“Harry could not calm her down,” Brown writes. “[Harry] went back upstairs and told his son he would have to move out of the house. Joe was ten.” The way Brown frames that story gives the reader a devastating punch and that’s one of the many times Brown really makes Joe’s story feel so raw and heartbreaking.
In addition to the way that Brown depicts his subjects — even delving into the history of supporting players like the University of Washington’s crew head coach Al Ulbrickson and coxswain Bobby Moch — Brown also does a remarkable job delving into the sport itself. He offers a detailed analysis of how rowing takes its toll on the human body. “A well-conditioned oarsman or oarswoman competing at the highest levels must be able to take in and consume as much as high liters of oxygen per minute,” he writes, adding “an average male is capable of taking in roughly four to five meters at most.”
Rantz is undeniably the main character in the book but Brown also writes about the world around him, creating a fuller picture of Rantz and the times he was living in. Aside from Rantz’s immediate surroundings, the author writes about Hitler’s growing influence in Europe and how he and his propagandists see the upcoming 1936 Olympics as an opportunity to promote Germany. (In the latter chapters, Brown notes the vile and disgusting tactics Hitler used to control and manipulate the German population so international audiences would only see the vision of Germany that Hitler wanted people to see.)
The story’s climax occurs at the Olympics as the University of Washington’s crew team faces off against its international opponents. Even here, Brown creates great suspense as he reveals what truly went into the final match-up. From the difficulties the crew faced rowing in one of the most difficult lanes in the race to the health of the one of the crew members, the author shows how truly incredible their race was.
The Boys in the Boat is an inspiring tale about a boy and his crewmates beating the odds but it’s much more than that. It’s a book that offers its readers a real and authentic portrait of a person beating the odds in the face of some heartbreaking experiences. It’s a story with vivid details about racing crew (including how losing teams had to hand their shirts off to their victorious rivals) and remarkable insight into an unforgettable team that came together to beat the odds and the naysayers.