Georgia Lomax, executive director of the Pierce County Library System, kicked off the evening talking about her reaction to the book. "I knew how the book ended up," she said, "but as I was reading it I wasn't so sure because the action was so tense." Everyone in the audience chuckled. We all felt the same way. We all knew the boys in the American boat were going to win their event at the Berlin Olympics -- it is in the history books after all -- but it sure didn't seem possible as we read the incredible details of the gold medal race.
David Zeeck, publisher of The News Tribune, offered some context for Boys in the Boat and what it tells us about being from the Pacific Northwest. He reminded us what a special thing these young men; from Puyallup, Anacortes, Montesano, Sequim, and Deming; had accomplished. Especially important because Seattle seemed like such a remote outpost to most people in America in the 1930s (and perhaps still does for many today!).
Daniel James Brown began his remarks describing a homeowner's association meeting. This seemed like a weird way to begin talking about his book, but we soon learned that's where he met Judy, the daughter of Joe Rantz, one of the nine members of the 1936 US Olympic crew team. Joe, who was over 90 at the time and on hospice care, had read one of Brown's earlier works and wanted to meet the author. Not long after meeting Joe started talking about his rowing experiences and Daniel wondered aloud if he could write Joe's story. "But not just about me. It has to be about the boat," he told the author. By "the boat" he didn't mean the crew shell -- The Husky Clipper -- he meant the boys in the boat, his teammates.
As Brown talked about his research and writing, he also shared reactions from fans who send him e-mail. Several people informed him they thought reading a book about rowing would be really boring. But anyone who has read this book knows it's about so much more than rowing and crew races. In fact, Brown said, many themes exist in the book along side the incredible crew rowing story: life during the Great Depression; Joe Rantz's personal story of abandonment as a child and how he overcame his feelings of inadequacy; George Pocock, the best racing-shell builder of the day; building the Grand Coulee Dam; Joseph Goebbels and the German Ministry of Propaganda; and Leni Riefenstahl and her powerful propaganda films for the Third Reich.
Midway through his talk, Brown showed us film footage from the Olympic finals race. The eight-man crew race begins at about 1:00 and the American boat is in the outer lane farthest from the camera. Shots taken inside the boats were filmed the day after the race and spliced into the footage. As the German and Italian crews approach the finish line, the American boat appears at the top of the frame, right at the end of the race, nosing out the narrowest margin of victory.
Brown read us two selections from his book. The first described the action from the 1936 Poughkeepsie Regatta, where Washington beat the University of California and other crews on their march toward the Berlin Olympics.
The second selection was from the end of the book where Brown reflects on the exceptional group of boys they were and what they represented. Brown visited Grunau, the site of the 1936 Olympic crew races.
“Standing there, watching them, it occurred to me that when Hitler watched Joe and the boys fight their way back from the rear of the field to sweep ahead of Italy and Germany seventy-five years ago, he saw, but did not recognize, heralds of his doom. He could not have known that one day hundreds of thousands of boys just like them, boys who shared their essential natures—decent and unassuming, not privileged or favored by anything in particular, just loyal, committed, and perseverant—would return to Germany dressed in olive drab, hunting him down.” ― Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin OlympicsThe passage goes on to describe birds dipping their wings in the sun-glistened water, flying low, and then gone. Brown equates that image to all the young men (and women) of the Greatest Generation who accomplished the unimaginable, but went on about ordinary lives raising families, working at their careers, and then passed from this earth and into our memories. I don't know if there was a dry eye in the auditorium at that moment. I know we were both in tears as thoughts of grandfathers, favorite uncles, and dear friends now gone filled our hearts.
The Boys in the Boat is much more than a sports book about crew racing, this is an inspiring story about determination, friendship, and teamwork. And ultimately it is a story about love. We both recommend The Boys in the Boat wholeheartedly.
Anne and Don Bennett
* Don co-authored this blog post with me today.