My Favorite Book

Did you have a favorite book in 2018? Mine was The Boys in the Boat, a novel based on a true story by Daniel James Brown. Several friends said this book was one of their favorites of all time, that I would love it. One conversation went like this:

“What’s it about?” I asked.

“The American crew team that won gold in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany when Hitler was in power,” was their reply.

“First, of all the sports that exist, crew—rowing a boat—is my least favorite; and second, we already know the outcome. How could this possibly be interesting?” I asked.

Well, I was wrong to doubt my friends’ suggestion for this book. Daniel James Brown created a miracle of words, just like the crew team from the University of Washington created a miracle on the waters of Nazi Germany. From page one, I was captivated by Brown’s impeccable writing with descriptions of the setting: the young men training in winter on the frigid water of Lake Washington in freezing rain and even in snow. Brown made me feel like I was right there in that boat. I stayed up late into the night reading, waiting to come to a good stopping place that never came. I was riveted by the story of a rag-tag group of young men coming together as a powerful team and mesmerized by Dan Brown’s use of language—truly a master word-smith.

Incomprehensibly winning local and regional meets, and then competing in New York against river currents never experienced and being given the worst lane with terrible crosswinds in the Olympic competition kept me constantly “on the edge of my seat,” and cheering out loud as I pedaled the exercise bicycle in the gym. The book went everywhere with me—just in case I had to wait in a line, or in a doctor’s office, I was ready to read.

Set against the Depression era of the 1930’s poverty, unemployment, and the collapse of agriculture and industry, Brown paints a portrait of young men whose fathers were farmers, loggers, and fishermen rather than bankers, lawyers, and doctors of east coast Ivy League crew teams that traditionally won competitions. I felt like I knew the characters on the crew team. I loved Joe Rantz, the book’s main character because he overcame all the odds against him.                

When Joe was ten his father and stepmother abandoned him, leaving him alone in a cabin in the woods—one of the saddest things I ever read, so sad it made me cry. His father and step-mother were having trouble making ends meet and feeding several children, so they made the decision to move and leave Joe behind. He had astonishing tenacity to maintain excellent grades in school while supporting himself by chopping wood, doing farm chores for neighbors, and getting food by fishing, trapping, and gardening. He knew that a college education was his way out of poverty. I related to his predicament as I too knew that education was the way out of my own struggles as a pre-teen and teenager. Like Joe, I was shy, lonely, didn’t fit in, and had parents who were not interested in me. I too found a teenage romance as did Joe when, in his early teens, he met Joyce Simdars whom he eventually married. Joe slowly made friends as the team trained, competed, and continually changed crew members.

The book’s message was so positive, triumph over tragedy in many ways. Joe overcame his terrible circumstances to take a gold medal in the Olympics. The team, a group of unpromising young men of poor financial status, became the USA’s champion crew. The sport of crew, at a time when people felt hopeless, gave the United States something to cheer for and be proud. Crew, at that time, was the most popular spectator sport in the country. And finally, the American win was a crushing blow to Hitler’s Germany, perhaps foreshadowing the ultimate downfall of the dark and ugly Nazi rule. In summary, three words might describe the theme of The Boys in the Boat:  Never give up!

Linda Lundgren