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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics


The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics Cover

ISBN13: 9780143125471
ISBN10: 0143125478
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In a sport like thisand#151;hard work, not much glory, but still popular in every centuryand#151;well, there must be some beauty which ordinary men canand#8217;t see, but extraordinary men do. and#151;George Yeoman Pocock

This book was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through wet woods to the modest frame house where Joe Rantz lay dying.

I knew only two things about Joe when I knocked on his daughter Judyand#8217;s door that day. I knew that in his midseventies he had single-handedly hauled a number of cedar logs down a mountain, then hand-split the rails and cut the posts and installed all 2,224 linear feet of the pasture fence I had just climbed overand#151;a task so herculean I shake my head in wonderment whenever I think about it. And I knew that he had been one of nine young men from the state of Washingtonand#151;farm boys, fishermen, and loggersand#151;who shocked both the rowing world and Adolf Hitler by winning the gold medal in eight-oared rowing at the 1936 Olympics.

When Judy opened the door and ushered me into her cozy living room, Joe was stretched out in a recliner with his feet up, all six foot three of him. He was wearing a gray sweat suit and bright red, down-filled booties. He had a thin white beard. His skin was sallow, his eyes puffyand#151;results of the congestive heart failure from which he was dying. An oxygen tank stood nearby. A fire was popping and hissing in the woodstove. The walls were covered with old family photos. A glass display case crammed with dolls and porcelain horses and rose-patterned china stood against the far wall. Rain flecked a window that looked out into the woods. Jazz tunes from the thirties and forties were playing quietly on the stereo.

Judy introduced me, and Joe offered me an extraordinarily long, thin hand. Judy had been reading one of my books aloud to Joe, and he wanted to meet me and talk about it. As a young man, he had, by extraordinary coincidence, been a friend of Angus Hay Jr.and#151;the son of a person central to the story of that book. So we talked about that for a while. Then the conversation began to turn to his own life.

His voice was reedy, fragile, and attenuated almost to the breaking point. From time to time he faded into silence. Slowly, though, with cautious prompting from his daughter, he began to spin out some of the threads of his life story. Recalling his childhood and his young adulthood during the Great Depression, he spoke haltingly but resolutely about a series of hardships he had endured and obstacles he had overcome, a tale that, as I sat taking notes, at first surprised and then astonished me.

But it wasnand#8217;t until he began to talk about his rowing career at the University of Washington that he started, from time to time, to cry. He talked about learning the art of rowing, about shells and oars, about tactics and technique. He reminisced about long, cold hours on the water under steel-gray skies, about smashing victories and defeats narrowly averted, about traveling to Germany and marching under Hitlerand#8217;s eyes into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, and about his crewmates. None of these recollections brought him to tears, though. It was when he tried to talk about and#147;the boatand#8221; that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.

At first I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory. Or did he mean his teammates, the improbable assemblage of young men who had pulled off one of rowingand#8217;s greatest achievements? Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that and#147;the boatand#8221; was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended bothand#151;it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experienceand#151;a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.

As I was preparing to leave that afternoon, Judy removed Joeand#8217;s gold medal from the glass case against the wall and handed it to me. While I was admiring it, she told me that it had vanished years before. The family had searched Joeand#8217;s house high and low but had finally given it up as lost. Only many years later, when they were remodeling the house, had they finally found it concealed in some insulating material in the attic. A squirrel had apparently taken a liking to the glimmer of the gold and hidden the medal away in its nest as a personal treasure. As Judy was telling me this, it occurred to me that Joeand#8217;s story, like the medal, had been squirreled away out of sight for too long.

I shook Joeand#8217;s hand again and told him I would like to come back and talk to him some more, and that Iand#8217;d like to write a book about his rowing days. Joe grasped my hand again and said heand#8217;d like that, but then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, and#147;But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.and#8221;

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Lauri F, August 7, 2014 (view all comments by Lauri F)
Daniel James Brown does an EXCELLENT job of engaging the reader immediately in this story about the winners of the 1936 Olympic 8-man rowing team from the University of Washington, Seattle. He introduces you to the men and their trials through the depression, and carries you through the nail-biting experiences leading to their Olympic win. I enjoyed the walk through the historic events of the time and the description of the preparations Germany made for the Olympics, especially the deceptive tactics the Nazis were taking to create a favorable impression to the world. I was initially drawn to the book because my son is on a crew team at a university in Washington. The book was such a good read that I recommend it to everyone.
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JLS, July 7, 2014 (view all comments by JLS)
This book was a delight. It brought back memories of the bit of rowing I experienced in college, realistically described the challenges of life in the '30's for students who had little to no money, and described a very real sense of what it is actually like, training in a crew shell on a lake. I loved the way Brown described how it can be when "the boat" "swings." What an amazing high feeling! The excitement and stresses of the Berlin Olympics were also brought to life from the personal point of view of "the boys," and the author's historical research brought a broader world view to this very personal story. These "boys" and their coaches are actual American heroes I had never know about before! Wonderful book!
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Teacherman, July 2, 2014 (view all comments by Teacherman)
Great job teaching history and telling a wonderful story.
I hated to have it end.
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(11 of 18 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Brown, Daniel James
Penguin Books
Sports and Fitness-Sports General
Edition Description:
Paperback / softback
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
from 12
8.44 x 5.5 in 1 lb
Age Level:
from 18

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History and Social Science » US History » 20th Century » General
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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics Used Trade Paper
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$11.90 In Stock
Product details 416 pages Penguin Books - English 9780143125471 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Brown masterfully narrates the tale of the 1936 American Olympic rowing team and their gold medal triumph. He paints a vivid picture of the men in the boat, their world, and their sport. A fascinating glimpse into a bygone era.

"Review" by , “For those who like adventure stories straight-up, The Boys in the Boat… is this year's closest approximation of Unbroken….It's about the University of Washington's crew team: 'Nine working-class boys from the American West who at the 1936 Olympics showed the world what true grit really meant.”
"Review" by , “If you imagined a great regatta of books about rowing, then Brown's Boys in the Boat certainly makes the final heat….”
"Review" by , “The astonishing story of the UW's 1936 eight-oar varsity crew and its rise from obscurity to fame,…The individual stories of these young men are almost as compelling as the rise of the team itself. Brown excels at weaving those stories with the larger narrative, all culminating in the 1936 Olympic Games…A story this breathtaking demands an equally compelling author, and Brown does not disappoint. The narrative rises inexorably, with the final 50 pages blurring by with white-knuckled suspense as these all-American underdogs pull off the unimaginable.”
"Review" by , “Those who enjoy reading about Olympic history or amateur or collegiate sports will savor Brown's superb book.”
"Synopsis" by , The New York Times–bestselling story about American Olympic triumph in Nazi Germany.

Out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times — the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.

It was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington's eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Drawing on the boys own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man's personal quest.

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