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Rowing tale deserves a medal

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The best sports stories are rarely just about the sport, as Daniel James Brown's riveting tale of the American eight-oar rowing crew who beat all odds to win gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics proves.

Drawing on interviews, archives, journalism and diaries, Brown tells this underdog tale of working-class University of Washington students and their coaches alongside the story of the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany.

As in Chariots of Fire or the more recent film Moneyball, Brown works with an inspirational and highly cinematic true sports story (there is already a film adaptation in the works with Kenneth Branagh attached to direct). Although we already know they will win the gold, the pleasure and interest derives from following the team from underdogs to heroes, with the usual triumphs and setbacks along the way.

Brown adds spark to this predictable trajectory by including plenty of historical detail to give us a feel for the period beyond the gruelling training of the rowing team.

It might be tough to imagine today, but in the 1930s rowing was as big a part of American popular culture as baseball or football are today, and the 1936 Olympic gold team members were treated like heroes upon their return home.

Brown is a writer of historical non-fiction who lives outside of Seattle. His familiarity with the atmospheric landscape of the Pacific Northwest and interest in Seattle's history -- including its connections to British Columbia -- are obvious. In his two previous books, he delved into little-known tales of astonishing survival against the odds in 19th-century America. Similar themes emerge here as he recounts how a group of outsiders succeeds in beating elite national and international crews through determination and dedication.

The story begins well before 1936 and, like the rowing crew itself, works because it unites individuals into a collective. Brown had access to one of the last surviving members of the crew, Joe Rantz, whose daughter aided with the research.

Joe becomes the main focus, as we follow his dream of overcoming parental abandonment and poverty to earn a place on the freshmen crew. The other main figures are the brilliant yet taciturn coach Al Ulbrickson, nicknamed the "dour Dane," and the philosophical British boat builder George Pocock, whose musings on the sport appear in epigraphs to each chapter.

Social class is a theme that dominates all levels of the story. The team itself is impoverished compared with those from the Ivy League eastern universities.

When told they must pay their own way to Berlin to represent the U.S., there are no wealthy parents or sponsors to step in and the dream seems over.

Brown recounts in a moving passage the massive fundraising effort by the citizens of Seattle that pulled together the $5,000 needed for the journey.

Brown intercuts the more traditional sports story with descriptions of Seattle when it was still considered a remote outpost, the devastating effects of the dust storms and heat waves of the early 1930s, the building of the Grand Coulee Dam (three of the boys signed up for dangerous summer jobs there to pay their next year's tuition), the craft of hand-building cedar racing shells, the physics and biomechanics of rowing, and various Nazi machinations.

Although Brown does tend toward some clichéd language and excessive mysticism about rowing and the brotherhood of the crew, his deft weaving of the individual and team stories and the suspenseful descriptions of the races makes for an informative, and at times, thrilling read.

 

Candida Rifkind is an associate professor in the English department at the University of Winnipeg, where she teaches courses in Canadian literature, comics and the literature and culture of the 1930s.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 A1

History

Updated on Sunday, July 28, 2013 at 12:33 AM CDT: Edits formatting.

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