By Daniel James Brown
Daniel James Brown grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended Diablo Valley College, the University of California at Berkeley, and UCLA. He taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford before becoming a technical writer and editor. He now writes narrative nonfiction books full time. His primary interest as a writer is in bringing compelling historical events to life vividly and accurately. He and his wife live in the country outside of Seattle, Washington.
This book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. Published originally in 2013, its paperback publication this year is just in time to celebrate the 80th Anniversary of the 1936 Olympic Games and the events described by Mr. Brown.
The 1936 Olympic Games were held in Germany. At the time of those Games the world didn’t fully understand what was happening in that country, particularly with its politics. We now have since read and understand what Adolf Hitler had in mind with this spectacular event being held in his country; to dazzle the world with a demonstration of German superiority. His racist and murderous plans took a major setback, however, as many non-German athletes and their Gold Medal performances proved otherwise. Jesse Owens was the clearest example of Hitler’s delusions, and to this day, those Olympic Games are remembered mostly as a result of Mr. Owens’ four gold medals. This book, however, brings to light another victory by a group of Americans, upsetting another part of Hitler’s plan: the eight-man crew of rowers and their very smart coxswain.
The author uses Joe Rantz, one of the young men who made up the team, to carry the story. Young Mr. Rantz’s story is by itself a saga worth reading. Combined with the tales of eight other students from Washington University, we readers are blessed with a story of courage, hard work, teamwork, and a view of the United State’s Economic Depression.
Joe Rantz’s mother, Nellie, died when he was four. His father remarried but to a woman who never accepted Joe. She confronted Joe’s father with the ultimatum that either Joe be placed out of the home or she would leave. Joe’s father chose to remain with his wife and told Joe he would have to move out of the house. Joe was ten. In exchange for splitting wood and chopping kindling for a school’s stone fireplace, he was allowed to sleep in the building. To eat, he worked at a mining company’s cookhouse delivering food to workers and picking up the empty plates and trays. It was a long time before things got better for Joe Rantz, but he maintained a positive mind set. Perhaps it was the constant routine of hard work from the age of ten until arriving at Washington University, then the commencement of rowing that provided him with the strength and stamina to succeed at that sport. It most certainly trained him to handle the hardships described in this story. But the story is not just about Joe Rantz. It conveys a very real sense of America during a very difficult era. It helps the reader understand what took place in Europe during that same time. It brings to life the area surrounding Seattle when it was barely a city. But more than anything, the author describes the sport of crew.
If you have never rowed, the book will fascinate and teach you to look at the sport in an entirely different manner. If you have rowed, you will understand that the author has captured what it feels like, and it’s a glorious feeling. An important character in the book is a boat builder, George Y. Pocock. A phrase of his is used to open the story.
“It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is. It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul.”
Today, the sport of collegiate crew receives far less attention than it did in the 1920s and 1930s. The author claims, “crew was wildly popular, often ranking right up there with baseball and collegiate football in the amount of press it received and the crowds it drew.” One of the fiercest rivalries was between Washington University and The University of California, Berkeley. The author does a great job of relating that rivalry over the course of many years. What makes the drama so entertaining is the lively descriptions of members of the Washington University boats, particularly the team of 1936. That team was composed of “the sons of loggers, shipyard workers and farmers.” Even after defeating Cal they were never expected to do well against the East Coast schools’ teams. Yet, they did that and more. The racing scenes capture the excitement of those races, the strategy as well as the exhausting physical efforts, even beating Adolf Hitler’s state-supported and favored 8-oar crew.
The reader should be struck with how different life in America was as opposed to today. One out of four American workers had no job. Feeding oneself and a family was extremely difficult. The athletes in this book received no scholarships. They worked hard all summer to pay for their tuition and books. There was always a struggle to find enough money to build and maintain boats or travel to compete. In spite of serious hardships these athletes succeeded. While reading the book there were moments I thought of the wonderful book Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. As a matter of fact, the “unbroken” hero of that book, Lou Zamperini, is mentioned in the story as he was on the same ship of athletes headed to Germany for the Olympics.
There is a reason this book has stayed on the best-seller list for so long: it is really a great story told with intelligence and style.