Saturday, May 28, 2016

Exhilarating, Even for a Canadian: Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat

Daniel James Brown's account of the US Olympic Rowing Team that won gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics has gotten tons of attention, including being one of the first featured books in Andrew Luck's Book Club

Yes. That Andrew Luck. 

The Quarter Back of the Indianapolis Colts started a book club and the webpage has little commentary from him along with discussion boards for readers joining in for the fun. 

There is also a Twitter handle for the club and an Instagram account. 

Pretty awesome stuff if you ask me.

Gets better though...I listened to audiobook which is narrated by Edward Herrman of Gilmore Girls fame who sadly passed away at the end of 2014. His deep baritone voice was perfect for the story of the Washington Eight.

Now to the actual story...

The Boys on the Boat is the story of the Washington University eight-oar crew that overcame repeated obstacles to win the Olympic Gold during the Hitler Games in 1936. The story begins as the bulk of the crew first join the crew as freshmen. The boys who make up the freshmen crew are more working class than their counterparts at more illustrious Ivy League schools on the East Coast, but their legendary coach Al Ulbrickson notes their special talent right away. 

While success beckons immediately, as the freshmen team ages they begin to struggle and lose confidence, unable to produce their best race when it matters most. In the lead up to the 1936 Olympics Ulbrickson and the crew are unsure about their talents and whether they can actually beat the best teams in the nation. 

Managing to win the Olympic Trial, the Washington team heads to Nazi Germany to participate in Hitler's showcase. Despite attempts to sabotage their efforts, the team manages to squeak to victory in a thrilling final race.

Although ostensibly following the eight rowers and the one coxswain, Brown focuses much of the story on Joe Rantz, a poor working class kid who was abandoned by his father at a young age and must come to terms with the need to trust his teammates in order to succeed. Intersperced alongside the Rantz narrative is the wax poetics from the mouth of George Yeomans Pocock, the legendary boat designer and philosopher of the sport who accompanied the team in its fateful journey. 

There are a few qualms with the book. There is the underlying jingoism that may have sold well in the United States but it grew tiresome. To assign such broad and nobel characteristics to American sportsmen is problematic. Although assigning traits such as selflessness and brotherhood to counter the German athlete served a literary function in this story I wasn't buying it. That American athleticism has been so easily coopted into the imperial project of the American state makes me question efforts to romanticize the idea of the American sportsman.

Also, Brown going out of his way to not mention socialists and communists as victims of the Nazi regime, while listing all the other groups persecuted, was a bit annoying and felt slightly cowardly or typically popular American writing. 

That said, the book was exhilarating to listen to. Brown builds up the tempo of the story at a perfect pace, mixing in the tantalizing excitement of the races with the personal struggles the oarsmen who deal not only with their athletic endevour but also the economic turmoil The Great Depression has caused. While Rantz is the central figure, the other subplots, be it Ulbreckson's bouts of self-doubt or the coxswain's (Bob Mock) discovery of his up until then hidden Jewish ancestry on the eve of heading to Nazi Germany, Brown fills the book with people we care about and cheer on as they race to gold.

Most impressive, however, are the actual races. The description of them is enthralling, having me seated at the edge of my seat as I wondered if the Husky team could overcome past defeat and take the crown.

So without surprise, I give this a whole hearted recommendation...especially for those willing and able to listen to the audiobook version.


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