The Boys in the Boat is the true story of how 9 men from 1930s Depression America won a Gold Medal in rowing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. And yet the book is so much more than a sporting memoir. It is a chronicle of success against all odds: limits of physical and mental endurance, poverty, lack of funding, abandonment at an early age by deceased or disappeared parents, illness, injury and appalling weather during training – these are just a few.
The Boys in the Boat brings together elements of medicine, physics, construction, philosophy and spirituality. How do you get a crew to row faster than anyone (including themselves) believes they possibly can? The answer lies in an alchemy of all of these elements.
The real attraction for me is that the book brings together two fascinations which you may have detected in some of my previous reviews: rowing (my passion) and Germany in the 1930s. And there is an other fascination, around social mobility, which particularly resonated with me when reading the book. My grandfather was a shopkeeper near Glasgow, Scotland and my father was the first of his generation to go to university. When I entered a top English public school as a timid 13 year old , I was relentlessly teased about my Scottish accent which was quite different from the Received Pronunciation of the English upper classes. I can therefore empathise with the Boys in the Boat when they mixed with Ivy League rowers at the New York Athletic Club.
But the main fascination for me in this book lies in the description which appears below the title of the book: “An Epic Journey to the Heart of Hitler’s Berlin”. The story of how the poor boys from the Seattle area of Washington State came together to become one of the University of Washington’s finest ever crews, is skilfully juxtaposed with the rise of Nazi Germany and the preparation for the games in Berlin where no expense was spared by the Third Reich. Hitler, Goebbels and Riefenstahl wanted the Germany of the time to appear to the world as something that in reality it was not – aligned with the values of the Olympic movement.
In an epilogue, the author of the book writes when revisiting the site of the Boys’ victory:
“Standing there, watching them, it occurred to me that when Hitler watched Joe and the boys fight their way back from the rear of the field to sweep ahead of Italy and Germany seventy-five years ago, he saw, but did not recognize, heralds of his doom. He could not have known that one day hundreds of thousands of boys just like them, boys who shared their essential natures—decent and unassuming, not privileged or favored by anything in particular, just loyal, committed, and perseverant—would return to Germany dressed in olive drab, hunting him down.”
The author’s book, extensively researched using documents and transcripts of conversations from surviving relatives and family of the Boys, was published in 2013 before the current President of the United States was elected. It does not have a political message, yet it does describe a different, more straightforward America of the 1920s and 1930s whose values, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, seem closer to those of the Founding Fathers.
If you row, this book is an absolute must. And if you don’t, it’ll make you want to take up the sport, as I did five years ago, when I first read it.
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