Book review: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

It was a story that had to be told…

Monday, 3rd March 2014, 9:00 am
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

When writer Daniel James Brown sat at the deathbed of his elderly neighbour Joe Rantz in Seattle, he stumbled across an epic true-life adventure which took nine working-class American boys into the heart of Hitler’s pre-war Berlin.

Joe – six-foot-three inches tall and still muscular in his old age – was one of a team of remarkable young men who broke the boundaries of their deprived childhood to become gold medal rowers at the infamous ‘Nazi Olympics’ of 1936.

Cast aside by his parents at an early age, abandoned and left to fend for himself in the woods of Washington State, Joe struggled to survive and turned to rowing as a way of escaping his past.

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What he could never have imagined in those grim days of the Great Depression was that he would one day help to row an eight-oared boat to victory in far-off Berlin, beating the German team to the finishing line under the cold stare of the Führer himself, Adolf Hitler.

How Joe and his lifelong pals exchanged the sweat and dust of life in 1930s America for the promise of glory in Germany is an extraordinary and heart-pounding story of grace and pride, grit and determination, team spirit and pulling together to achieve a common goal.

So moved was Brown both by Joe’s amazing journey and the emotion behind it that there and then he requested the dying man’s permission to write his life story. Honoured by the proposal, Joe had only one condition… it wasn’t to be just his story; it had to be about ‘the boys in the boat.’

And it is a truly uplifting and inspirational account, one of triumph over adversity as Brown takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the lives of the boys, their families, the coaches who guided them to victory, the history of 1930s America and the science of rowing.

Using meticulous research and an array of photographs, Brown helps us to feel the pain of hours of tough training, the inevitable self-doubt, the fight to find the right rowing combination and the joy of making the boat fly across the water.

We also get to understand the passion of London-born George Yeoman Pocock, the leading designer and builder of racing shells in the 20th century. Pocock achieved international recognition by providing the eight-oared craft which took the American crew to their gold medal in 1936.

Beyond his achievements as a boat builder, his influence, promotion and philosophy of rowing inspired countless oarsmen and rowing coaches. Rowing, he claimed, ‘is the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion.’

And meanwhile, stroke by stroke, race by race, Joe regained his shattered self-regard, dared to trust in others again and to find his way back home…

He died in 2007, just a few months after Brown interviewed him for the book. The author’s final tribute to Joe is a tale of resilience and determination, full of lyricism and unexpected beauty, rising above the grand sweep of history and capturing instead the purest essence of what it means to be alive.

The story that had to be told could not have been written more eloquently.

(Pan, paperback, £8.99)