All I know of the 1936 Olympics is Olympia and Jesse Owens. So this story, the story the American Gold medal-winning 8 man crew, their coxswain, their coach and their boat builder (yes, even him) was completely new to me. I don’t even remember the rowing scenes in Olympia very well. This is an exciting version of that story, but it is also a deeply flawed version, and I think it depends upon what you think of sports journalism and sports history, whether you’ll enjoy it or be maddened by it.
So let’s start with the good: This is an exciting book. Even though you know what’s going to happen, the races in particular are riveting. Like the best sports history and the best narrative history of particular events, Brown, manages to create tension with his writing style where foregone conclusions are turned into in-the-moment, edge-of-your-seat thrill rides. He’s really good at this.
He also does an excellent job – one might argue too excellent – of getting in the head of his main character, Joe Rantz, and into the minds of some of the other historical figures. You believe this is Joe’s story – it’s Joe’s story more than anyone else’s – and forget that Joe is no longer alive to tell his version of things. (Brown takes liberties with the characters and we go inside their heads, especially Rantz’s.)
I’ve never read anything about the Great Depression in Washington, and so this was also really illuminating how the Pacific Northwest was during the Great Depression. So much of the early part of the book is focused on Joe’s life as a poor boy and teen during the early part of the 20th century, and that is really fascinating – and sometimes tragic – stuff.
However, there some major, major flaws with this version of events.
As I said, the story is Joe’s more than anyone else’s. This is because Brown met Rantz and interviewed him before his death and that’s how the book got started. The boat builder gets perhaps more time than anyone else, but everyone else are secondary characters, including the entirety of the rest of the rowing team. So the title is slightly misleading. It should be called something like Joe Rantz and the Boys in the Boat but we wouldn’t know who he is. But given that Joe had such a crazy life, that’s really not the main criticism.
Speaking of the movie version: the other thing that feels false to me is how high the odds get when we get to Berlin. I haven’t checked his sources online but it sure feels as though some of the insurmountable odds in the final race must be invented or, at the very least, exaggerated. The problem with telling the story as the crew tell it is that memory is unreliable. It feels like Brown got the memory of the race rather than that race, and much about the book, but particularly its climax, feels as though time has distorted what actually happened so that the most dominant racing team the United States had yet produced – ever? I don’t know – is somehow the underdog in nearly every race.
But if you’re interested in sports, especially Olympic sports, or you just want to read a well-told story of plucky poor and working class people overcoming odds to become champions, you will likely enjoy the book. It is exciting, after all.