Daniel James Brown is upfront with what happens in his historical non-fiction: the boys of University of Washington win gold in the 1936 Olympic games in Nazi Germany. As strange as it may seem to give the ending away instead of drawing out the drama, trusting the reader not to look up the results, Brown gives away nothing about the book. In fact, this book is less about the finish line and more about what led up to and came together in the final 150m of that race in 1936.
The further you shorten and abstract this story, the greater injustice you do to its beauty. This book is the story of one of the rowers, Joe Rantz, but is shared by many others in the boat. Coming from humble means, Joe’s story is one littered with broken trust, abandonment, and physical labor. His mother dies when he was a young boy, tearing apart his family, leading to him being sent away. His father returns, remarries, and moves his new family away, leaving Joe on the porch to fend for himself in the countryside in Washington.
Rantz makes it to University of Washington where life’s distractions keeps Joe’s mind occupied as he learns to row. Money, school, family, work. All of these worries distracts him from growing with his boat. His group of freshmen rowers were some of the best that had come around. With a few roster changes, this was the boat that won the Olympic gold just a few years later.
This book is about what differentiates a good crew from a great crew. After spending last term learning to row, this was an interesting and emotional topic to read. A great crew has no individuals, but is one entity far greater than the sum of its parts. Brown does a beautiful job at capturing the heartache as well as the triumph of these stories while painting the relevant historical setting – Nazi Germany and its propaganda (“fake news” if you will…), Seattle, and the landscape of the rowing field. He captures the transformation of a community that is placed on the map through victories of their home team, much like Coastal Carolina placed Conway, SC on the map with the NCAA baseball victory and Clemson put themselves on the map by recently toppling Alabama.
I would highly recommend this book to everyone and say it is a Must Read for anyone who has sat in a crew boat.