Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Book Review for The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

For readers of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit and Unbroken, the dramatic story of the American rowing team that stunned the world at Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics

Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard and to find a place he can call home. The crew is assembled  by an enigmatic coach and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat builder, but it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. They remind the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together—a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism.

Drawing on the boys’ own diaries and journals, their photos and memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, The Boys in the Boat is an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate story of nine working-class boys from the American west who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really meant. It will appeal to readers of Erik Larson, Timothy Egan, James Bradley, and David Halberstam's The Amateurs.

   The Boys in the Boat, published in 2013 by Daniel James Brown, is the legendary story of the nine Americans and their journey to winning gold at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Focusing on one sole character, Joe Rantz, The Boys in the Boat touched on more than racing. Taking place during the Great Depression, we see the characters, specifically Joe, struggle through education, racing, working, and living at this difficult time in America’s history. The format, the characters, Brown’s writing purpose and theme made The Boys in the Boat so powerful and something I enjoyed very much.

The setting of The Boys in the Boat stretches from 1933 to 1936, with some other flash backs and flash forwards to the past or future. Mainly set in Seattle, the Great Depression took a toll on the American people currently living there. “Men in fraying suit coats, worn out shoes, and battered felt fedoras wheeled wooden carts toward the street corners where they would spend a day selling apples and oranges and packages of gum for pennies a piece… Children awoke in damp cardboard boxes that served as beds [1933]” (7). The setting changes from the streets of Seattle to the shell house on the University of Washington’s campus, where the nine boys first tried out and trained to become world class rowers. After these two main settings, we follow the boys as they win two national titles at Poughkeepsie and take on the rest of the world in Berlin. “As the Manhattan sailed northeast that night and darkness enveloped her, she was ablaze with lights and loud music, alive with laughter of young people at play, having the time of their lives venturing out onto the black void of the North Atlantic, on their way to Hitler’s Germany” (295). But, like the differing chapters, the settings were also contrasted:
“As Joe drifted to sleep aboard the Manhattan, the first light of dawn crept over Berlin, revealing small groups of men, women, and children being marched through the streets at gunpoint… Now they were on their way to a sewage-disposal site in the Berlin suburb of Marzahn, where they would be kept in a detention camp, well away from the eyes of foreigners arriving in Berlin for the Olympics. In time they would be sent east to death camps and murdered” (297).
This contrast in setting helps to show the reader the difference between America and Germany at this time, and also gives a feel for what was happening during World War II.
            The characters in The Boys in the Boat are what made the novel so special and so entertaining. Aside from the nine rowers, there were two characters that really stood out to me: Joe and Joyce Rantz. Joe Rantz, the main character of the story and the reason behind it, was my favorite character in the book. His story was profoundly inspiring and I found his character to be extremely relatable. “The path Joe Rantz followed across the quad and down to the shell house that afternoon in 1933 was only the last few hundred yards of a much longer, harder, and at times darker path he had traveled for much of his long life” (25). Joe was born into a middle class Seattle family until his mother Nellie Maxwell died. Nellie was quickly replaced with Thula LaFollette, a family friend. In 1922, the house Joe had lived in with his mother burned to the ground in front of his eyes. After this, the family relocated to Joe’s father’s work, a mining company on the Idaho-Montana border, to live in small, ramshackle houses. After getting in trouble a few times, Thula declared Joe must move out of the house at the age of ten. “So began Joe’s life of exile” (36). Joe slept in the school house in exchange for work and went to the cookhouse of the miners to eat only breakfast and dinner. In 1924 the family moved back into Thula’s parents’ basement in Seattle. Soon, after saving money, Harry began to build a house of their own in Sequim, Seattle. Throughout this time Joe attended school, got good grades, and had many friends. Things were looking brighter… until it got darker again. After the house was half-finished, Thula declared her need to move. Thula, Harry, and the children left Joe behind in Sequim to fend for himself in 1928. He found a few odd jobs to make money in which he saved to be able to attend the University of Washington in 1930. Joe had a hard time adjusting to the sport of rowing and also the idea of trusting other people:
“For Joe, who had spent the last 6 years doggedly making his own way in the world, who had forged his identity on stoic self-reliance, nothing was more frightening than allowing himself to depend on others. People let you down. People leave you behind. Depending on people, trusting them—it’s what gets you hurt” (237).
This sole quote sold me on the entire novel. Joe’s life is relatable to my own and I can relate to what Joe is feeling. The depth of Joe’s character and Joe’s inspiring story led me to love The Boys in the Boat and is why the story is so successful. I loved Joyce’s character for the same reason. Her story while not so intense is relatable, as Joyce had an oppressive parent and grew up to be successful. Joyce was bound to her family’s farm growing up, and found it hard to find freedom.
“And so when Joyce first laid eyes on Joe Rantz, sitting in the back of the school bus strumming a guitar, singing some funny old song and flashing his big white toothy grin, when she had first heard his boisterous laugh and seen mirth in his eyes as he glanced up the isle at her, she had been drawn to him, seen him at once a window to a wider and sunnier world. He seemed the very embodiment of freedom” (65).
Their story was, in the simplest terms, super enjoyable to read. My favorite aspect of their relationship was the reoccurrence of the four leaf clover. One of my favorite quotes from the book mentioned it. As Joe was leaving for Berlin, he remembered this moment:
“Joe hung out the window as well, searching. Then, in a far corner, he found her. Joyce was standing with his father and the kids, jumping up and down, holding high over her head a sign on which she had painted a large, green four-leaf clover” (256).
The characters in The Boys in the Boat, specifically Joe and Joyce Rantz, are what made the book so unforgettable and entertaining. To quote USA Today, “Colorful Characters Keep ‘Boys in the Boat’ afloat”.

            Daniel James Brown’s successful novel, The Boys in the Boat, was written for one sole reason: to tell a story. Brown wanted to tell the story of Joe Rantz and the other eight boys in the boat in the 1936 Olympics. But in attempting this, Brown also did much more. “For Gordon Adam, Chuck Day, Don Hume, George “Shorty” Hunt, Jim “Stub” McMillin, Bob Moch, Roger Morris, Joe Rantz, John White Jr. and all those other bright, shining boys of the 1930’s—our fathers, our grandfathers, our uncles, our old friends” (Acknowledgements). Brown told the story of thousands of men growing up in this time period, which is why the novel is so relatable. The Boys in the Boatdid not only take place in the boat, but it depicted the idea of hope in bleak times. From the descriptions of the people in Seattle during the Depression and the minorities over in Germany, Brown’s novel shows us the power of hope. From Joe’s time living in bleak Sequim to Don Hume being sick with pneumonia while crossing the Olympic finish line in first place even to the Jewish families stuck in concentration camps during the war, The Boys in the Boat depicts the power of hope.
            The Boys in the Boat, written by Daniel James Brown was a book that I took to heart (which means a lot because I normally read heavy fiction under the genres of dystopian or apocalyptic). Brown’s novel touched my heart in a way I thought not possible from a nonfiction book. Brown’s format, the characters, and the purpose and theme made The Boys in the Boat so successful and also very gratifying to read. At the top of the novel’s back cover, it reads “An irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times”. The Boys in the Boat certainly lived up to this expectation.
Oh it's good to be back! Basketball season just ended, and boy was it crazy hectic! But now I am fully back on book schedule! See you soon!

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