Hi there! Over the summer, I was asked to write a book response on a nonfiction book, so I decided to read The Boys in the Boat. I recently completed my response, so I decided to share it in place of my usual Tuesday book review. Please keep in mind that this is not like my regular book reviews, as I will be covering topics such as the author’s main ideas, the author’s opinion on the topic, and text structure. The Boys in the Boat certainly tops my list for my favorite nonfiction books. I would certainly recommend that you read it.
The nonfiction book I chose to read this summer was The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. The Boys in the Boat takes place in Seattle, and describes the rowing career of nine college students, particularly Joe Rantz. Amidst the Great Depression, these boys struggle to attend college and remain in the rowing crew at Washington University.
At the beginning of the book, the author describes a gray-skied day in Seattle, where hundreds of starving people with ragged shirts sat outside of the local soup kitchens waiting for them to open. Wall Street had fallen less than four years before, and the effects had quickly spread west across the country. Joe Rantz lived nearby in a town named Spokane, Washington. His father, Harry Rantz, had luckily found one of the few jobs remaining, and began working with automobiles. He and his wife, Nellie Maxwell, settled into one of three houses in Spokane and while Harry worked in his auto shop, Nellie taught piano at their house.
Joe, having been born in 1914, however, remembered a completely different and more harsh life in Spokane than his parents recalled. Most of Joe’s memories, though, began after Nellie quickly fell ill and died of throat cancer. Now at a loss of a job, Harry fled for Canada. Fred, Joe’s older brother, then left for college, leaving Joe to live with his aunt in Pennsylvania.
No less than a year later, Harry returned to Spokane and attempted to start a new life by building a new house, and marrying the sister of Fred’s wife, Thula. As difficult as Joe’s previous life had been, he now struggled with a mother who didn’t care at all for them, a severe loss of funds to support the family, and soon after a house fire that destroyed all but Joe’s mother’s old piano.
Joe’s family moved to Boulder City, where Harry had found a new job in the mine. But after several incidents in their new house, many involving Thula and Joe, Thula decided that it would be best to give Joe to the local school to work in exchange for food. He was abandoned by his family for the next few years as the family decided to move to Seattle, Washington. Joe learned to take care of himself, and found several opportunities to make money.
In no time at all, Joe was ready to attend college, and he was able to come up with enough money to get him through his first year. When the semester began, Joe quickly savored the opportunity for free food, and he always seemed to finish eating his third serving of food after everyone else had left the cafeteria.
Despite Joe’s athletic personality, he found that he didn’t have an interest for many of the sports at the University of Washington, so he decided to try out for the rowing team. At the freshman tryouts, he met Roger Morris, who he would get to know throughout his rowing career, along with numerous other optimistic students. The truth was, only 9 of them would be able to compete in the freshman boat at the California vs. Washington races, in hopes to move on to the Poughkeepsie races.
Joe quickly found that he did have a knack for rowing- he just had to find out how to get into what many rowers called ‘the swing’, a time when the rowers on the eight-oared boat rowed in perfect unison, and each individual rower worked as a team rather than individually. In the end, Joe’s endless hours of rowing practice earned him a place on the freshman team, which would go on to not only go on to win the California race, but also the freshman race in Poughkeepsie.
As easy as that year had seemed to Joe, the next year was to be even more difficult, as he would compete under the watchful eye of Al Ulbrickson, the head coach, for a spot on the varsity team that would compete in hopes of making it to the 1936 olympics. Meanwhile, in Germany, preparation for the olympic stadium was well under way. Joseph Goebells, who had a high rank in the Nazi party, was quickly designing plans for the enormous Reich stadium, meanwhile Leni Reifenstahl, the party’s propaganda manager, was in the works of making several films to highlight the Nazi party and a new Germany. In fact, many americans who visited were deceived into thinking exactly what germans were- that the Nazi party was not conforming the the rumors about Jewish people being treated harshly in Germany, and that the new Germany was a wonderful place to live in.
Unfortunately, though, the rumors about Jewish people in Germany were true. As the Olympics neared, Jewish people were outlawed from public places, were not allowed to operate businesses, and simply treated as an outsider. Hitler’s view was to rid all of Germany that were not the ‘master race’, and so eventually that led to sending Jewish people to concentration camps that would most likely lead to their death. Things would quickly change by the time of the Olympics, however. While the country continued to rid of all but German blood, all signs of violence were hidden as athletes from other countries began to arrive.
Back in Washington, Joe continued to struggle with the effects of the Great Depression over the summer. Through reading this book, I really understood the severe effects that the Great Depression had on Joe and countless others. Joe was often left with no money in his pocket, making just enough to feed himself and reside in a small basement room at Joe’s local YMCA.
Over the summer, Joe managed to find an average paying job working on creating a dam after dust storms destroyed soil and rock, leaving large crevices in the stone. While the job involved hanging over the edge of the cliff with a jackhammer, Joe managed to make enough money to attend his next year at school.
Once again, Joe was back at Washington University, and quickly resumed his rowing career. After last year’s performance at Poughkeepsie, Ulbrickson was considering moving his Sophomore boat up to Varsity. This left the current Varsity crew extremely disappointed, but the winning streak for the now sophomore boat was gone for now. As Ulbrickson and George Pocock, the University’s boat crafter, observed the boys, they noticed that the boys had lost their ‘swing’ from last year, and had begun to receive slower times due to awkward strokes.
This downfall continued over the course of the year, and the group of 9 boys, who Ulbrickson had tried several times to rearrange rowers in hopes of better times, were to row as the sophomore boat as opposed to the Varsity in the California race. But when the time for the California race arrived, Ulbrickson and Pocock noticed that while the Sophomore boat was lacking in time, they had the potential to revive the swing that they had had just a year before. Both were proven right when the boat won the sophomore race against California.
The boys continued, however, to have their positives and negatives with rowing. While it was difficult on Ulbrickson, he decided to move the Sophomore boat up to Varsity status. In Poughkeepsie that year, Washington won all three races against the Eastern states, and would move on to the Olympic trials.
The preliminary trials were played in two rounds, where only four out of the six boats would qualify for the olympic trials. The Seattle team won the first race, and therefore were headed for the Olympic trials the following day. Against California and three other Eastern teams, Washington pulled off another win which determined that the Seattle boat would represent the United States in the 1936 Olympics.
Despite the stroke rower in the boat feeling ill, the Washington team travelled by boat to Germany. Like so many other Americans who had visited Germany, the boys were deceived once again for what Germany really was, and what the rise of the Nazi party really meant. They marvelled at how modern Germany was, and began to explore the area. The condition of the stroke oar, the most important position in the boat, continually worsened, and Washington had to use a substitute rower for the first rounds of the Olympics.
To the delight of Al Ulbrickson, Washington qualified for the medal round. Ulbrickson could tell that something was up, as Germany received the most protected lane, while the US received the lane with the worst conditions. As ill as Don Hume was, he returned to the boat for the gold medal. When the race began, the boys started a few seconds late and struggled to regain the lead. Miraculously, the boys narrowly beat Germany for the gold medal to the disgust of Adolf Hitler. After Joe’s tough family history, everything had at once become worth the struggle, and Joe finally felt whole again.
Based on the way the author portrayed the nonfiction story, the author was against the works of the Nazi Party in Germany, and was sympathetic about the effects of the Great Depression. I was able to tell this by the way the author wrote about how the United States was deceived for what Germany really was, and explained in great detail what was happening behind the scenes in Germany. Daniel James Brown emphasized the struggle Joe encountered throughout the Great Depression, but also offered the hope that Joe would be able to pull through the struggle and begin a family, which he did with his friend, Joyce, from the nearby Sequim. As the book was a true story, I know that Daniel James Brown used sequencing as the text structure for The Boys in the Boat.
Thanks for reading! This will be the last scheduled book review- for the school year, I will release one as soon as I can finish writing it.