Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, thereby infuriating Adolf Hitler, who stormed out of the stadium after this black man from Alabama so visibly challenged Nazi fantasies of racial superiority. So what if a group of white boys from the University of Washington managed to win a gold medal in the eight-man boat race?
In the hands of Daniel James Brown, their story becomes a fine-grained portrait of the Depression era, with its economic and climatic horrors set against youthful dreams. Brown finds a representative figure in Joe Rantz, a poor boy whose determination to overcome odds make him an ideal hero. Brown learned the details of Rantz's brilliant rowing career from the athlete himself. But this story wasn't just about him; it was always about the boat: nine rangy boys - sons of farmers, fishermen, and loggers - who managed to coalesce into a rowing team that would march confidently into the 1936 Olympics under the hawkish eyes of Hitler.
Before the dawn of TV sports, when bouncing balls rose into their current lofty position in pop culture, successful rowers were held in very high esteem.
Brown digs into his material with impressive energy, trying to understand the dynamics of the sport, which he conveys with enthusiasm. And it doubtless helps the narrative that the bad guys are so bad. We get intermittent snapshots of key members of the Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, run by Joseph Goebbels, who appears in all his monstrosity in these pages, limping around the Third Reich and leering at young starlets.
Among the good cards Brown has been handed are that two of the American rowers fell desperately ill before the race, although they persevered at the insistence of their coach.
Also the American team was given the worst lane, putting them in the path of severe crosswinds. Throughout the race, the crowd cheered wildly for Germany, as they would. Everything seemed to tilt against the boys in the boat, but they prevailed, coming from behind, beating Italy by eight feet, leaving the German crew in third place.
The Boys in the Boat is, then, an often inspiring feat of narrative non-fiction, even though it could never be as thrilling as the victory of those nine boys from Washington state on a windy day in Berlin once upon a very dark time.
Guardian News & Media