Working-class heroes

Recently, I felt a need to take a break from the world of nonfiction so I asked Facebook friends to recommend some light fiction.

And what did I read next? Another work of nonfiction. But, hey, this one was a delight. Particularly so, because I was unfamiliar with the events and personalities that inspired author Daniel James Brown to write “The Boys in the Boat.”

It’s the inspiring story of nine young men from small towns in Washington state who, with little or no previous experience, came together on the rowing team at the University of Washington and competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics — and triumphed against the world’s best.

The 1936 University of Washington rowing team, including Joe Rantz, second from left.  Photo courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW2234.

The 1936 University of Washington rowing team, including Joe Rantz, second from left.
Photo courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW2234.

That these working-class sons of loggers, farmers and shipyard workers could learn a demanding sport and then rise to become collegiate champions, defeating the traditional East Coast powers as well as their West Coast archrival, the University of California, was astounding enough.

That these eight oarsmen and their crafty coxswain could prevail in the Olympic Trials at Princeton and then win the gold medal – as a dejected Adolf Hitler watched – was even more improbable.

That they accomplished this feat during the depths of the Depression and gave weary Americans reason to cheer – well, that was downright heart-warming.

TheBoysintheBoatI know as much about competitive rowing as I do the inner workings of a nuclear reactor. What I learned from the book was plenty – not just about the origins of the sport and its enduring popularity amongst the upper class, but also about the techniques, teamwork and strategy that propelled these unlikely working-class heroes to victory.

The author was moved to write the book when he met one of the crew members, Joe Rantz, in the twilight of his life. Rantz may have been the poorest of the whole bunch, growing up essentially on his own after his father and stepmother abandoned him while he was still in high school. Yet, as a crew member, he was like everyone else – essential to the team’s group success and utterly anonymous as an individual.

Aside from the narrative itself, I enjoyed three things about the book.

1. Frequent geographical references to places I know, which allowed me to better appreciate key events.

Sequim, Washington, is a little town on the Olympic Peninsula where Joe Rantz grew up in abject poverty. Lori and I visited for the first time last year and drove the same streets mentioned in the book.

Poughkeepsie, New York, was the site of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship for much of the 20th Century. Likewise, I could visualize the stretch of the Hudson River where the crews battled, having seen it during visits to Poughkeepsie’s Vassar College, where our daughter did her undergraduate work.

2. The author’s ability to provide historical context, whether describing Depression-era Seattle, the rise of the Nazis, the rivalry between the UW and Cal crews and their coaches, or the immense popularity of rowing itself. I hadn’t realized that it is the oldest intercollegiate sport in America, that for decades it was the most popular college sport, nor that millions of Americans huddled by their radios to hear live broadcasts of the Olympic races for the first time in 1936.

3. The story within the story. That is, the incredible determination required of Joe Rantz and his crewmates to tolerate pain and frigid Northwest weather during their training sessions on Lake Washington – and the amazing resiliency they showed in overcoming each and every barrier put before them, ultimately beating the steepest odds as 75,000 spectators watched the Olympic finals.

I wouldn’t have found this book on my own, so here’s a shout-out to my friend Eric Wilcox, who’s rowed in Portland’s dragon boat races and who insisted I borrow the book after we had breakfast on a recent Saturday.

Good call, Eric. It was a fine read.

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