“There is a history in all men’s lives.” - William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II, Act III, Scene 1 Every once in a while, a story comes along that is undeniably true, yet so preposterous, so difficult to believe, so fantastical, no sane reader would accept it as plausible were an author to produce a work of fiction with the same story line. Every once in a while, a story emerges from out of nowhere that commands the attention of millions of readers, despite the fact few if any of them are familiar with the book’s subject. Every once in a while, a sports story explodes on the scene that captures the imaginations of people who would otherwise never willingly pick up a sports book to read. Every once in a while - but only very rarely - a story appears like Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a book that accomplishes all three feats, scoring a literary trifecta.
Brown’s opus recounts the improbable tale of how nine young men from the University of Washington in Seattle, most of them products of hardscrabble, working-class, small town upbringings, overcame all-but-impossible odds to capture the men’s eight-oared gold medal in rowing at the Games of the XI Olympiad in Berlin in 1936 with Adolf Hitler and his top Nazi henchmen watching from a balcony overlooking the finish line. The tale is centered around the struggles and eventual triumph of one of the Washington oarsmen, Joe Rantz. The fact that Rantz was able to rise above a painfully difficult childhood and fractured family life to become an Olympic champion is a heart-breaking, enthralling, ultimately exhilarating tale in itself. Brown vividly brings to life the characters of Rantz and his teammates—the boys in the boat—as well as those of a colorful assortment of other memorable personalities, each of whom plays their part in this unforgettable saga.
In recent weeks, I was fortunate to attend two programs related to the book. The first featured author Dan Brown (not that Dan Brown, the one who wrote The DaVinci Code; the other Dan Brown, the one who publishes using his full name, Daniel James Brown). The second featured Judy Rantz Willman, Joe Rantz’s daughter. Both events drew standing room-only crowds, and both speakers were loudly applauded after they finished. In Judy Willman’s case, many in the audience, myself being one of them, were busily wiping away tears from their eyes halfway through her talk. Her presentation included personal anecdotes from her father’s life not found in the book and was at once intimate, theatrical and compelling. Both Dan and Judy were outstanding, doing justice and more to a tome they refer to in their correspondence in shorthand by the acronym TBITB.
In pages teeming with sui generis figures, two individuals tower above the rest: Joe Rantz, the oarsman, and George Pocock, the builder of the Husky Clipper, the needle-like cedar racing shell in which the Washington crew powered to victory on the waters of the Langer See in Grünau, a suburb of Berlin. As a craftsman and coach whose company’s maxim was, “Building boats to build men,” Pocock was one of the seminal figures in the history of the sport of rowing, not only in America but world-wide. Brown begins every chapter with a quote from him. George Pocock’s most famous quote of all describes the sport of rowing in this way: "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 you’s, which is your soul." Pocock was an imposing, impressive, inspiring figure, fond of quoting Shakespeare and the classics from memory although he never completed high school in his native England. Tellingly, he began his as-yet-unpublished memoir with the quote from Henry IV that opens this article. Pocock’s presence and influence color and inform the entire TBITB story. At the darkest of moments when Joe Rantz was in danger of losing all hope, Pocock sensed the young man’s troubles, invited him upstairs to his shop and gave him personal guidance and encouragement that kept him in the game. As winners of a bidding war, the Weinstein Company (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables, The Artist, The Iron Lady, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, The Butler, etc., etc., etc.) bought the movie rights to TBITB and commissioned a script. Neither Dan Brown nor Judy Willman, however, have an inkling as to if or when a movie will be filmed and released. Some speculate the Weinsteins plan to have a movie version ready in time for the next Summer Olympic Games, to be held in Brazil in 2016. Whether or not a movie is made of TBITB, the book remains compelling reading. It has held the #1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list for long stretches since its June 2013 publication and has already sold well over a million copies. It has been translated into Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, Korean and French. A German edition is slated to appear in April, and translations into Spanish, Turkish, Italian, Chinese and other languages are planned. Work is also underway on an abridged middle school-age version for release this coming fall. Purchase Boys in the Boat now.