I finally got around to reading The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. I completely understand why this book received so many rave reviews from critics and readers alike. Somehow, Brown managed to make a book about a somewhat obscure historical sporting event deeply compelling and accessible. I never would have picked this book up without the buzz, so I’m very glad for all the press this one received. This is truly terrific narrative nonfiction – meticulously researched and richly described.
The story follows the University of Washington 1936 Varsity Crew team’s path to the Olympics. The role of the 1936 Olympics in obscuring Nazi activity is a subplot of this book, and it also makes it clear which team the reader is supposed to root for in the race (hint: America).
The main “character” Brown follows is Joe Rantz, a boy who grew up in rural Washington State with few resources. OK, that is an understatement. Rantz grew up in Depression-era rural Washington with an evil stepmother. He was eventually abandoned by his whole family and had to fend for himself. The reader follows Rantz as he tries to support himself as a kid on his own, as he gets himself into college, and as he finds his way to the crew team and then works to stay there. In this sense, The Boys in the Boat can be seen as a story of individual “grit.” How does this boy push himself up and over obstacles to succeed?
The other part of the story concerns the crew team and the coaches that built this winning team without much money or a legacy of support. The head coach found that his top athletes, who were so strong as individuals, didn’t always work together well. There was something in the relationship between the athletes that was important. In this sense, The Boys in the Boat can be seen as a story of the value of connection and trust and common endeavor.
These two themes – the triumph of the individual against-all-odds and the deep value of community -- are clichés in sports stories, so The Boys in the Boat isn’t really journeying into new territory here. But, if my book club conversation is any indication, both of these themes continue to matter. We talked about the parental role in developing “grit,” but we also saw that individual grit alone wasn’t enough to propel success for Rantz and his teammates. There had to be “public” support (mentorship; institutional commitment; the commitment to develop relationships, etc.).
That question – whether “success” is a result of individual characteristics and behaviors or a result of social conditions created by policy -- is an issue that policy makers continue to deliberate. When Paul Tough released How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character in 2012, critics suggested that the conversation about grit was deflecting from the fact that we are reducing our public funding of institutions that build strong communities and networks. An example of that can be found in public willingness to invest in character education programs in schools that serve low-income students while reducing funding for after-school programs, community centers, and family support. The flip side can be seen in affluent communities, where there are all sorts of community supports but very little willingness to let children experience obstacles.
While The Boys in the Boat fits into this larger conversation, this is still a book about sports. My heart pounded during the sports scenes, even though I don’t really care about crew races, and I was pretty clear about who was going to win. It is being made into a movie, which will likely involve buff young actors, triumphant music, and a feel-good ending. When it makes it to the big screen, I will be in the audience, with popcorn.
You can find a good interview with Brown here. He helpfully points out that he is NOT the DaVinci Code Dan Brown.