The Boys in the Boat
By Miriam R. Kramer
“When you get the rhythm in an eight, it’s pure pleasure to be in it. It’s not hard work when the rhythm comes—that ‘swing’ as they call it. I’ve heard men shriek out with delight when that swing came in an eight; it’s a thing they’ll never forget as long as they live—George Yeoman Pocock, racing shell builder
“It’s the greatest eight I ever saw, and I never expect to see another like it.”—Jim Ten Eyck, Syracuse coach, eighty-two years old
Daniel James Brown’s hit book, The Boys in the Boat, has been hovering at the top of the non-fiction bestseller lists for good reason. Brown met Harry Rantz, a member of the eight-man rowing crew that won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, when Rantz was dying of congestive heart failure. Yet he happily told stories to Brown about his experience rowing in a boat that is often termed the best crew to ever row together in an eight-man shell. Their races happened during the backdrop of the Depression, when the American people needed someone to cheer and something to feel good about.
When speaking to Brown, Joe implored him with tears in his eyes to write “[not] just about me. It has to be about the boat.” Brown realized that to Joe the boat meant more than the exquisite shell or the determined people in it, although they were part of it. The boat at its best was a mysterious moment of transcendence that caused Joe to adopt dependence on and trust in others while feeling a sense of timelessness. His experience as a rower proved a turning point in Joe’s difficult, independent life. In the book Joe serves as a symbol for the other kids in the Washington Husky rowing program who were poor, working-class, hard-working and diligent, focused enough to leap through all hurdles to achieve the ultimate prize.
Joe Rantz was a kind, hard-working kid who lost his mother at an early age. He and his brother mostly had to fend for themselves, and he was sent back and forth to a cold aunt across the country. Then his father married Thula, a concert violinist who produced Joe’s half-siblings while having no outlet to display her innate talents in rural Washington state. At one point in Sequim, Washington, the deeply frustrated Thula decided that she had had enough. Joe’s stepmother urged Harry, Joe’s weak father, to leave the fifteen-year-old at the old house there because he was another mouth to feed in the depression. They headed eventually to Seattle. From that moment on Joe sublimated his abandonment, learning to depend only on himself, growing his own produce, trading it for others, and finding a way to go to high school while working any job he could find. His only solace was a high school girl who loved him, a woman named Joyce whom he planned to marry.
When he had saved enough money and arrived at University of Washington to major in chemical engineering, he heard of the rowing club and went through the rigorous tryout process. Becoming a member of a freshmen boat, he realized that he had finally found something he wanted to excel at, with obstacles to overcome that would match or overshadow past challenges. He wanted to rise through the ranks to junior varsity and varsity and perfect this unwieldy, exceptionally difficult sport. Considering his few mental blocks, he wondered if he would ever make it, although he had Joyce’s full support.
One of the reasons Joe Rantz eventually became a superb rower is George Yeoman Pocock, an innovative British shell-builder who had moved to Seattle and created gorgeous boats with various special woods in which no detail was spared. They were functional art, as perfect as a wooden shell could be. Once other rowing clubs had seen the competition fly in his boats, people from all over ordered his shells, and he became known as the best shell-builder in the world. His wisdom influenced all the boys, and he took a special interest in Joe.
As Brown points out, Pocock was a motherless son, and he understood Joe and his special bent for independence and self-reliance, since Joe had been abandoned twice. He focused Joe on the necessity of realizing that he had a team around him, a team that he must depend on and harmonize with, no matter how hard he stroked on his own and to his own rhythm. In that way he broke down Joe’s defenses and probably those of other hardscrabble team-mates to help them achieve the best results possible.
In Joe’s senior year, after a series of back-breaking but character-building summer jobs, he had no idea if he would make varsity. He had been put in the third team the previous year for his erratic performance. Yet George Pocock’s advice, to sublimate his independence and ego within the boat, stayed with him.
In his senior year, his legendary coach, Al Ulbrickson, proclaimed that he was mixing up his freshman, sophomore, junior varsity, and varsity teams to find the best combination of boys that could win through to the Olympics. With the addition of Joe Rantz in his varsity line-up at the last hour, everything clicked. Joe was with friendly boys he had trained with most, boys he could trust if he could trust anyone, and all of the sudden the boat’s dynamic changed. With the addition of Rantz, the shell comprising eight individuals became a perfect unit on the river, blowing past the competition in West Coast races, the East Coast national races in Poughkeepsie, NY against the Eastern elites, and finally, the Olympic trials. They had ultimate “swing,” even while maintaining slower paces until they needed to ramp up their speed.
At that point, reporters realized that here was a team that could make it all the way, even in the highest trial of sportsmanship ever created. The boat comprised Roger Morris, bow; Chuck Day, number two; Gordy Adams, number three; Johnny White, number four; Stub McMillin, number five; Shorty Hunt, number six; Joe Rantz, number seven; Don Hume, stroke; and the crafty, cold-blooded Bobby Moch as coxswain. The latter would direct the stroke, communicating the level of rowing necessary for the boat.
While talking about the Washington rowing crew and Joe, Brown flips back and forth between the events that were happening in Seattle and Hitler’s concurrent preparations to present a non-threatening image of Germany to the world while re-arming for war and planning to create an imperial Third Reich. With the help of Joseph Goebbel’s brilliant propaganda and Leni Riefenstahl’s well-crafted artistic propaganda films, Hitler’s scrubbed-clean theatrical backdrop of grandiose sports arenas and friendly Olympic villages covered his brutal agenda against Jews and other minorities. The boys, eventually housed in an idyllic German village near Lake Grünau, were oblivious to anything out of the ordinary.
In Berlin, Don Hume had a cold that had lingered, perhaps developing into a severe case of walking pneumonia or bronchitis. When the boys gathered together to bond and plan strategy, they could not imagine rowing without him. He was essential for the chemistry of the boat. They told Coach Al Ulbrickson that no substitute could take his place. They were such a cohesive team that they offered to carry his limp form through the race if necessary.
The end of this story is very suspenseful, regardless of anyone’s knowledge of the boys’ results. Brown presents a nail-biter and a shining moment that lifted the spirits of those suffering from the Great Depression, those who had suffered the Great Dust Bowl and were traveling west for work, and anyone who supported American sports. He also contrasts the events in Washington and Germany with the Great Depression and hard times that caused the boys to take second jobs while rowing and in school, giving a nuanced context of the situations in which the boys found rowing as their purpose and release. Rowing was second only to track and field as the favorite sport in the Olympics. These outdoorsy Western boys were heroes across recovering America and particularly in their home town of Seattle, which listened to their exploits avidly on the radio. They had given Seattle status.
While The Boys in the Boat shares some qualities with the stellar and beautifully written Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, the overlap is the innate determination that Louis Zamperini showed at the 1936 Olympics during the Depression. Zamperini’s innate determination that helped him qualify got him publicity but also sustained him through his terrible ordeal during World War II. That book is a slightly faster read, since it has less preliminary detail. Yet this book is also suitable for beach reading and needs the biographical elements that Brown presents. His clear writing skims by and conveys a lovely message of unity that resonates in our atomized era.
In the end the words that come to mind are chemistry, alchemy, and synchronicity. Eight boys with individual strengths and imperfections had a common desire to prove themselves and support each other. A canny, intuitive coach recognized their mutual trust and respect, selecting them for varsity and the Olympic trials. They rowed in a beautiful, perfectly made boat, and turned what seemed like lead into gold in the Olympic Games. Their short sharp burst of glory revealed them as a glorious, shining whole for one perfect moment. Lastly, their win was also an act of defiance and a display of American values presented to Hitler, who refused to acknowledge the wins of non-German athletes at the games. The Boys in the Boat is a legendary sports tale, and a monument to the American twentieth-century trope that tenacity and hard work will help anyone achieve their goals.