'The Boys in the Boat' compete at 1936 Olympics

"The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics," by Daniel James Brown (Viking, June 2013) Photo Credit: Handout

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REVIEW

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

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, by Daniel James Brown. Viking, 404 pp., $28.95.

Before I read about "The Boys in the Boat" being optioned by Hollywood or compared to "Sea-biscuit," I was already envisioning it on the big screen.

It's a stirring tale of nine Depression-era athletes beating the odds to compete at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. You can Google the result and spoil the sport, but that won't dull the many pleasures in Daniel James Brown's colorful, highly readable account.

The "boys" -- eight rowers and a coxswain from the University of Washington -- trained continually in all weather when they weren't scrambling to find money to pay for school. "Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment," Brown writes. From their freshman outings in 1933 they were an exceptional group, and their coach's thoughts turned to Olympic gold.

Brown was fortunate to have access to a surviving rower a few months before he died, and then to his daughter. With Joe Rantz, the writer draws a fine portrait of a boy who deals with a broken family and empty pockets by turning fiercely self-reliant. That's a great quality for a decathlon but not for the eight-headed marvel of synchronicity that is crew.

It makes Joe, a gifted rower, his boat's great question mark and another source of tension. For him, "nothing was more frightening than allowing himself to depend on others." Joe's sweet, steady gal, Joyce Simdars, supplies the love angle.

I see at the center of the film a transplanted Briton who is perhaps the best builder of eight-man shells in the world and a true sage on rowing. George Yeoman Pocock, equal parts Yoda and Noah, keeps his workshop at the University of Washington crew dock. He whispers in the coach's ear. He nurses Joe with homespun homilies. He hand-builds almost every shell in every race in the book.

"His understanding of the details of the sport -- the physics of water, wood, and wind; the biomechanics of muscle and bone -- was unmatched," Brown writes.

The shells cost $1,150 or "the same market price as a brand-new LaSalle built by General Motors' Cadillac division," Brown writes.

Good guys are no good without baddies, and Brown cuts several times to Berlin to follow the progress of Germany's new sports complex, the scurryings of Hitler's henchmen, the rise of anti-Semitism -- driving Jews from the once-well-mixed rowing clubs of Grünau, where Olympic shells raced.

Brown has written two nonfiction books about humans in extreme situations: the Donner party ("The Indifferent Stars Above") and the 1894 Hinckley, Minnesota, forest fire ("Under a Flaming Sky").

His crew saga can't be as dire, which may be why he sometimes oversells it, stretching his canvas out of proportion. "A pall fell over the campus" from an awful accidental bonfire death. A few lines later we get the "literal" pall of the 1930s great dust storms, and before a page has passed, there are "distant but dark rumblings from Germany."

Never fear, though. As Hitler watches the nine Americans perform at Grünau, Brown uses his big, rich newsreel voice to say the führer "could not have known that one day hundreds of thousands of boys just like them, boys who shared their essential natures ... would return to Germany dressed in olive drab, hunting him down."

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