The Boys In The Boat: An Epic Journey to the Heart of Hitler's Berlin by Daniel James Brown

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The Boys In The Boat: An Epic Journey to the Heart of Hitler's Berlin by Daniel James Brown

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A compelling look at a lesser-known athlete from the Berlin Olympics, this would definitely appeal across a wide range of tastes.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: January 2014
Publisher: Pan
ISBN: 9781447210986

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You see, Jesse Owens had it easy – all he had to do was run fast. Alright, he did have to face unknown hardship, heinous prejudice at home and abroad, and make sure he was fast enough to outdo the rest of his compatriots then the world's best to win gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but others who wished to do the same had to do more. People such as those rowers in the coxed eights squad – people such as young Joe Rantz. He certainly had to face hardship, the prejudice borne by those in the moneyed east coast yacht clubs against an upstart from the NW USA, and when he got to compete he had to use so many more muscles, and operate at varying tempi, with the temperament of the weather and water against him, all in perfect synchronicity with seven other beefcakes. Despite rowing being the second greatest ticket at those Games, Joe's story is a lot less well known, and probably a lot more entertaining.

But you cannot pretend the hardships here are unknown, such is the level of detail in this book. It might look dauntingly dense and intimate, with every element of life presented in novelistic detail. Every i has been dotted, every t crossed it seems, by our author. Weather reports are here, fashions worn by unnamed extras included. It appears that every chance he gets he indulges in the philosophy shared by Bill Bryson's recent look at US history, that what's of note isn't the major events in line but every minutia of the time interconnected. This blatant attempt to appear definitive, if you give it time, does mean one of two equally important things. First, given the footnotes, it proves our author's kinship with his story, and that he had enough time with an elderly Joe Rantz and more with his devoted eldest daughter to get intimately acquainted with all the relevant episodes, thoughts and conversations of the story. Secondly it definitely allows the racing episodes to zip off the page, carried by the participants' own sheer adrenalin across all these years.

At the same time it kind of shows the title up to be a misnomer. This is definitely a biography of one of the boys in the boat. But it is also a great life story. Rantz was certainly never allowed to just develop in a straight line from nobody to Olympic hero. You might think Seattle was a typical (albeit windy) city, but no – the catalogue of natural disasters to hit it is bizarre, second only to this being the Great Depression. Rantz's family background was even more notable. His summer jobs to keep him in college were primed to show him as a meticulous but athletic worker – handbuilding a cedarwood roof one year, building a dam the next. But it's on record that he had to struggle even to stay in the A crew beyond his freshman year, let alone be one of the eight that defeated the rest of the American teams and deserved the chance to represent the USA. A hat-trick of Olympic golds for the country was at stake.

You can put the case that, just as Rantz was training himself to be a good roofer or dam builder during his extra-mural work activities, so our author has had to prove himself with knowledge of the world of historical rowing. He did have a chance connection to the story, but you end the book feeling grateful that this man took it upon himself to tell it and not anybody else. He vividly brings to life the rivalry between colleges' coaches, succeeds against all my doubts in convincing when it comes to Rantz's personal moods and romantic inclinations, and whips up a frenzy with the climactic races. All the while we're educated in the singular career path, philosophy and needs of a unique brand of athletic performer.

I came to this book due to my fascination with stories connected to Nazi Germany, and found that was actually the least of its subjects, the least of its merits. It makes it perfectly clear the Games were just a cog in the Nazi propaganda machine, a showcase to the world that was making dark mutterings against Hitler and his ideology. It also points out, if one had forgotten, where the original version of that interminable torch relay that beset Britain a few years ago came from. Returning to those merits then, they're equally shared between being a very personal history of 1930s sport, and a great – and yes, definitive – biography of a forgotten American hero. Hitting so many bases, and hitting them all so well, shows this volume does indeed have some of the DNA of its subject – mastering so many muscle groups to get to its finish line a lot more gracefully, powerfully yet seemingly effortlessly than thought possible.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The other standout look at a sporting life with shadows of the Third Reich all over it is Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend by Catrine Clay.

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Buy The Boys In The Boat: An Epic Journey to the Heart of Hitler's Berlin by Daniel James Brown at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Boys In The Boat: An Epic Journey to the Heart of Hitler's Berlin by Daniel James Brown at Amazon.com.


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