If you're a fan of the Olympic Games and are feeling a little bereft in this non-Olympics year, I have the perfect summer read for you. "The Boys in the Boat" is a thrilling recounting of the way the underdog University of Washington rowing team rose from the deprivations and setbacks of the Great Depression to quest for Olympic gold in Hitler's Berlin in 1936.
This is a remarkable story about beating the odds, time and time again. It begins with the devastating tale of one Joe Rantz, a kid who lost his mother to cancer at an early age. Then when he was in high school, Joe lost his entire family when his stepmother convinced his hapless dad to leave Joe behind as the rest of the family moved away from their struggling stump farm in Sequim to begin life anew at some undisclosed location elsewhere.
In 2007, Redmond author Daniel James Brown met Rantz as he was nearing the end of his life. In conversations with the ailing gentleman, Brown was given a glimpse into the tough times and stoic resolve that had shaped this man and his eight teammates - almost all of them from hardscrabble, working class backgrounds - into Olympic champions.
Brown draws from the athletes' old journals and letters, photos, newspaper accounts, and memories passed down to younger family members, in order to recreate not just the lives of the teammates, but the context of the times.
When he was left to his own devices early on, Joe resorted to poaching salmon and reselling stolen Prohibition hooch. To make his way through the University of Washington, he patched together odd jobs - cutting timber, bucking hay, working as a night janitor, building highways in a Civilian Conservation Corps program and blasting rock at the construction site of the Grand Coulee Dam. This intensive manual labor made him an attractive candidate for the crew team, but there were still the grueling try-outs to endure and after that, the jockeying for position in the top boat.
Rich in anecdote, "The Boys in the Boat" goes on to share stories about fierce interschool rivalries, wily coaching strategies, and - most daunting of all - the vanquishing of self-destructive mind games.
In addition to the ongoing suspense that plays out in finely-crafted Pocock shells out on Lake Washington, a Who's Who of real-life personalities swirls through this book, from Hitler to Seabiscuit, as the narrative interweaves economics, nutrition, politics, weather, design, psychology and more to create a vivid picture of the times.
Brown has written an excellent and compelling history of the momentous years leading up to World War II. But it is his re-creation of the crew races that is absolutely sublime - these intricately chronicled brains-and-brawn events will leave readers holding their breath as they turn page after spellbinding page.
To borrow from the journalists of yore when they reported on an outstanding race, this book has "plenty of swift." I heartily recommend "The Boys in the Boat."
Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com