Attending graduate school at the University of Oregon made me a Duck for life. Which is one reason why I have little love for the University of Washington. Yet I recently read a book that made a big dent in my anti-Husky ardor.
“The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” which was written by Daniel James Brown, offers up a story so amazing that even Hollywood couldn't have come up with it. In fact, Brown has reportedly struck a deal with the Weinstein Company that has Kenneth Branagh set up to direct. But unless they decide to add extraterrestrials to the mix, they simply couldn't come up with a more dramatically powerful and unbelievably thrilling story.
What Brown does is tell the larger story of what comprises an entire era. First, he documents the travails that affected the country both before and during the Great Depression. He contrasts what occurs in the U.S. with the rise of Nazism in Germany. Hie gives a look at early 20th-century Seattle, the pre-Boeing/pre-Microsoft city of loggers, fishers and farmers. And he people his book with a whole cast of interesting characters, from George Pocock, the forward-thinking British-born designer/builder of racing shells, to Al Ulbrickson, the UW's hard-nosed varsity crew coach. From Leni Riefenstahl, director of the study in Nazi glorification “Olympia,” to Joe Rantz, one of the eight Husky rowers whose story is a movie of the week all by itself.
It is Rantz, who spent his formative years in Spokane, whose hard-times story drew author Brown to the project in the first place. But, as Brown reveals in an author's note, Rantz told him not to make the book just about him. “It has to be about the boat,” Rantz said.
Brown stuck to his word. And we are the ones who benefitted.