I never thought that I would choose to read a book about a sport. I’m just not sporty! But so many people recommended The Boys in the Boat that I took the bait….and I was caught, hook, line and sinker.
Maybe it was because it’s about my neck of the woods (the Pacific Northwest). The central character in this true story is from Sequim, which is a town near Quilcene, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula where I did ethnographic fieldwork for three years in the 1970s. Maybe it’s because a lot of it takes place at the University of Washington, where I got my PhD, and in Seattle, where I and also my daughter have lived over the decades. There are segments in New York State, where I now live; and in Princeton, New Jersey, where I spent my ‘junior year abroad’ (as one of 9 ‘guinea pig’ girls on a then all-male campus). Maybe it’s because the boys in the boat make their way to Europe by ship (which I did several times in my childhood—going back and forth between Turkey, where I lived in the 1950s, and the US, where I had and have my roots). Maybe it was the interweaving of European politics in the 1930s, the rise of Hitler’s power, into the Olympic story. It made for frightening comparisons with the politics of the present-day Presidential contender, Donald Trump. I don’t know, but I found it an extraordinarily fascinating and moving book.
It is the story of the 8-man crew that won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Germany, though the protagonist is one member, Joe Rantz. The book starts with his difficult childhood, which includes the early death of his mother, his rejection by his step-mother and his father’s inability or unwillingness to protect him from her, the poverty of the 1930s, and the necessity for him to ‘make it on his own’ from the age of 15. Throughout, however, Joe maintains a positive attitude, meeting each challenge with both resolve and sadness but without apparent bitterness. With persistent effort he manages to do well in school and get accepted at the University of Washington, where again persistent effort is required to obtain and maintain a spot on the unusually talented crew team. The book tells the tale of the team’s various challenges from other schools, their excellent record of wins, their growing teamwork, culminating with the Olympic race in Germany.
Woven throughout the book are other admirable characters: Joe’s demanding but likable freshman coach; the strong, silent head coach; the knowledgeable shell-maker from England who also coaches informally in the background; and Joe’s faithful girlfriend from Sequim who joins him in Seattle, working her way through college as well. We meet his team mates, and gradually build up an understanding of how their respective and varying talents contribute to the success of their shared endeavours. None of these young men is from a wealthy family; they hail from loggers and dairyfolk and farmers—yet they are competing in what is seen as an elite sport, from England and from the eastern seaboard.
A background element is the desire to bring Seattle, then seen as a backwater town, into the limelight and gain recognition for the city and the state as worthy of national attention, producing serious competitors. There is also a strong democratic undertone, a recognition of the traditional American value that ‘anyone can do it’ if they work hard enough and stick to it long enough. The book recognizes and praises the boys’ persistence; and it manages to convey the emotional components of good teamwork. Besides the boys’ individual abilities with an oar, they need to work as a single unit if they want to move the shell through the water with the greatest speed, to find their ‘swing’. They are led in this by the coxswain who sits in the back barking out commands and his ‘stroke man’, whom the other rowers follow as they determine their shared rowing speed.
There are long segments in which the reader follows the progress of individual races, but the prose is so compelling that, even with no initial interest in the sport, my attention never wandered. Sprinkled into the words about rowing speeds and technique were insights about the individuals’ characters, childhoods, struggles and accomplishments. The background of national or regional pride, personal competitions between coaches and schools, and between elites and the working class enliven such narratives. It is a gripping personal story, an explication of important American values, and a commentary on 1936 politics that bears reading about today.