This book was written to be made into a movie. It has all the ingredients; An inspirational plot about the power of drive and perseverance, the backdrops of depression-era America and then 1936 Berlin, and a cast of characters including yuppie Ivey Leaguers, a down on his luck all-American boy just trying to put himself through school, and Nazis.
While overall the book is about the “Boys in the Boat;” the Washington rowers who won gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Brown spends most of his time talking about Joe Rantz. I think that Rantz was the main person Brown interviewed so it makes sense. Also Rantz did not have an easy life, and the chapters dealing with his upbringing and personal life are heartbreaking.
The main focus of the book is the journey of the American athletes, but the snapshots paragraphs that Brown writes about Berlin on the eve of WWII are one of the more fascinating parts of the book. Brown details the processes undertaken to clear Berlin of any signs of anti-Semitism in anticipation of foreign guests arriving. In one of his more poignant vignettes, Brown describes a series of scenes of Jewish families going about their daily lives only to conclude with the fact that after the Olympics ended, many were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. He writes extensively about Leni Riefenstahl, the woman responsible for directing The Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda film. Even though she only played a minor role in this story, she is a fascinating character and I was intrigued wanting to find out more.
Furthermore Brown is just such a fantastic writer. He uses such lush language and paints the most vivid scenes. The epilogue, where he traces the lives of the “Boys in the Boat” following the Olympics had me close to tears. He is a passionate storyteller and it shows. Just to give a sample he writes,
“All were merged into one smoothly working machine; they were, in fact, a poem of motion, a symphony of swinging blades.”
If that quote doesn’t make you want to watch rowing I’m not really sure what will.