I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve referred to this book as Boys On the Boat. Which is ridiculous, because it is all about being IN the boat. Anyhoosie, consider that fair warning in case I slip up.
This book. THIS BOOK. It is absolutely, positively, without a doubt, the best book I’ve read this year.
Okay, fine. I haven’t read that many (five at the time of writing this post), but still…THIS BOOK.
I loved it.
Which is strange, because I didn’t really think it would be something that would, well…float my boat. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)
It’s the story of 9 young men (really, it focuses on 1 young man, but by the end, he realizes it’s not about him, it’s about everyone in the boat with him, so truly, it’s the story of 9 young men) who row for the University of Washington and end up representing the US at the 1936 Olympics. Yeah, that Olympics…the one with the maniac with the stupid mustache (aka Hitler).
All of the boys in the boat come from working class backgrounds. They are in stark contrast to the East Coast teams from more privileged backgrounds, and there is a lot in the book about the East-West rivalries (as well as the bigger UW-Cal rivalry). The boy at the center of the story, Joe Rantz, had a particularly rough childhood, as he was often tossed out of the house by his step-mother. He was perhaps the poorest boy on the team, and was often razzed by others for his shabby clothes and love of the banjo. However, like the others, he was bright, and driven, and smart, and in the end he realizes that he needs to believe in both himself and his teammates if they want to win.
The book also introduces other fascinating characters, such as Al Ulbrickson, the coach of UW’s teams, and George Pocock, who built almost all of the sculls in use at the time, and who also served as a mentor to the team.
The only jarring note in the book was the almost rabid hatred that shines through whenever the author brought up Hitler. Every few chapters he would jump to Germany and the preparation for the Olympics. And I’m NOT saying that Hitler shouldn’t be rabidly hated, but I didn’t think that all of the scenes featuring him and Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl were necessary. The author obviously holds great admiration for the boys in the boat, and (this is no spoiler) they overcame adversity to win the Olympics, but Hitler personally did them no wrong (although whoever came up with that asinine method for determining lane assignments obviously was trying to do someone some wrong), so I do think the bias against Hitler was overdone.
But despite all that, I still could not put this book down. I powered through it in 2 days, even taking it with me so I could read in my car while I waited for my friends to show up for a hike. And then I kept chattering about it at lunch.
One of my closest reading friends didn’t care for it and couldn’t make it past the first 100 pages, but everyone else I know who has read it loves this book. So if you’re at all on the fence about reading it, I say give it a try! It’s got a great story, and I dare you not to fall for Joe Rantz.