Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The boys sat without talking, breathing heavily, exhaling plumes of white breath.  Even now that they had stopped rowing, their breathing was synchronized, and for a brief, fragile moment it seemed to Joe as if all of them were part of a single thing, something alive with breath and spirit of its own.

So, unbeknownst to either of us, Randy and I were reading the same book at the same time (great minds, etc., etc.).  He also posted about The Boys in the Boat, and I gladly direct you to his review, which has a good synopsis of the story.

First off, this was a great book. Following so closely on the heels of Unbroken (both the book and the movie), it's hard not to compare the two, at least a little, as both feature American athletes at the 1936 Olympics (Louis Zamperini even makes a cameo).  But while Unbroken (the novel) was spectacular (and much broader in scope), I thought that Brown did a better job of capturing the events of those Olympics.  The Boys in the Boat was primarily about Joe Rantz and the University of Washington crew team, but Brown interspersed details of Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels's propaganda machine in the preparations for the games, which I thought added a needed element.  It was so creepy to read about the preparations the Germans made for the Olympics, how they sanitized the burgeoning fascism and Antisemitism to put on a show for the rest of the world.  Knowing how Germany and the rest of Europe would so soon be torn apart added an extra layer of morbid drama to the events.

West of the stadium a vast, flat assembly area, the Maifeld, had been leveled and a great limestone bell tower was being erected.  The tower would stand just over 248 feet tall.  The great bell it would house would bear around its bottom edge an inscription sandwiched between two swastikas, "Ich rufe die Jugend der Welt!" ("I summon the youth of the world!")  And the youth would indeed come.  First for the Olympics and then for something else.  A little less than ten years in the future, in the last few desperate days of the Third Reich, scores of Hitler Youth - boys as young as ten or eleven - would crouch below the bell tower among blocks of fine Franconian limestone, the rubble of the buildings now being erected, shooting at advancing Russian boys, many of them not a great deal older than they.  And in those last few days, as Berlin burned around them, some of those German boys - those who cried or refused to shoot or tried to surrender - would be lined up against these limestone slabs by their officers and shot.

The 1936 games are fascinating to me (I'm still waiting for an amazing movie/book to be made about Jesse Owens. How has that not happened yet?), and Brown did a great job of capturing the pageantry and emotions.

This was also a great sports book.  Unlike Randy, I didn't know anything about rowing before I started reading it, but the passages about the intricacies of the sport were surprisingly fascinating.  Brown also did a good job of keeping the anticipation and drama ratcheted up throughout each racing scene.  I kind of figured Joe and the UW guys would make it to Berlin based on the cover, but I was still on the edge of my seat.  All in all a very interesting and exciting read that I highly recommend.


Randy said...

So, here's the main question I have for you, a non-rower but who was also heavily involved in a sport: did reading this book convince you that rowing is uniquely special?

As in, convince you that rowing is more special than other sports?

Because, for me, the book did that. But, I harbor an intense bias. So, it's really difficult for me to separate my personal feelings from what the book actually accomplishes.

Brittany said...

So, here's the main question I have for you, a non-rower: Should a non-rower who is also a non-team-sports person who is also dating a rowing enthusiast read this book?

billy said...

Randy: No, it did not. I was impressed with the strategy and physical exertion required, and it seems that a truly great crew has to work together perhaps to an extent greater than teams in other sports. I will say that crew is more interesting to me now than it was two weeks ago. But every sport has something that makes it special. Swimming doesn't require the same synchronicity as crew, but you use all of your muscles in a similar way (and most of the time with your face under water). Baseball doesn't require the same connection with your teammates, but hitting a round ball with a round bat spinning at you at 95 miles an hour is far harder than pulling on an oar over and over. Not to take anything away from rowing; it is probably an underrated sport, but I just don't think it is set apart from other sports.

Brittany: sure, it's a good book. There is much in the book about life during the Depression, the politics of the Olympics, and the personal stories of the athletes to appeal to the non-sports person, plus in small doses I think the drama of the races would appeal to even the most non-sportsy person.

Randy said...

I'll say this, with full awareness of my massive bias: the working together aspect is what sets rowing apart. To me, there's something interesting in hitting a ball 95 miles and hour, or kicking a ball, or running fast, etc.; but the cooperation of rowing is a special kind of magic. (again, bias acknowledged).