#SummerReading: The Boys in the Boat

#SummerReading: The Boys in the Boat

(Editor’s Note: Summer Reading is a new Weekly column featuring what local notables are reading this season. What are you reading? Email [email protected].)

Monroe County School District Superintendent Mark Porter has plenty of summer reading material. Most of it is topical — books about leadership and motivation by such authors as Daniel Pink and Bill Hybels. For fun, he’s also reading a book about American Olympic athletes from 1936.

“It’s a great book,” he said. “I might finish more books before the summer is over, but that’s it for now.”

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The Boys in the Boat:

Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

by Daniel James Brown/Penguin Books, 2013

Reviewed by Laura Albritton

If you’re not interested in an astonishing tale of how nine young men, some throttled by poverty during the Great Depression, overcame tremendous odds to qualify for the Berlin Olympic games and not only participated, but rowed to victory right under Adolf Hitler’s nose, give “The Boys in the Boat” a miss. That leaves more copies for the rest of us.

Writer Daniel James Brown doesn’t simply chronicle a winning team; in fact, if you have zero interest in rowing, or no interest in sports whatsoever, this meticulously researched, beautifully written book will still keep you thoroughly engrossed.

Right from the prologue, Brown proves himself a talented storyteller, first by focusing on specific individuals, such as rower Joe Rantz, abandoned as a boy by his father and stepmother, and English boat builder George Pocock, who immigrated to the New World with just a handful of dollars. Then the book pans out like a movie camera, to show us what their world was like: “It was the fourth year of the Great Depression. One in four working Americans – ten million people – had no job, and only a quarter of them were receiving any kind of relief.”

Brown also puts you right in the “shell” with the crew, explaining that: “the major muscles in your arms, legs, and back…do most of the grunt work, propelling the boat forward against the unrelenting resistance of water and wind.” An oarsman processes “as much oxygen as a thoroughbred racehorse,” leading to such a buildup of lactic acid that “the muscles often begin to scream in agony almost from the outset of a race.” Not only does the book explore individual lives and the hardships of Depression-era America, it also shifts over to chronicle Hitler’s regime, where Joseph Goebbels and Hitler’s favorite filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl scheme to deliver a film of the Berlin Olympics equating Nazi Germany with the glories of ancient Greece.

When Brown’s writing turns even practice sessions in Seattle into gripping stuff, you can bet the boys’ final race against experienced, international teams will keep you clutching the book to the very last page.

Laura Albritton writes about books and art for publications such as the Miami Herald and Sculpture magazine. University Press of Florida recently published her guidebook, “Miami for Families: A Vacation Guide for Parents and Kids www.miamiforfamilie

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