If you read just one book this year, read The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. Since we’ll be cheering on our favorite athletes in Brazil this month, this is the perfect book to get into the Olympic spirit.
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Step back in time and discover the sport of rowing. Set in the northwest, mainly in Seattle, this book tells two concurrent stories that come together at the end of the book. First is the true story of Joe Rantz, a pull yourself up by the bootstraps kind of guy and the “boys in the boat,” his crewmates who learned to pull as one. Their journey that ultimately leads to Olympic gold is implausible and inspiring. Second is the engineering of Hitler’s Olympics. Author Daniel James Brown sheds fascinating light on the lengths Hitler and his followers went to in order to present the facade of a perfect Aryan nation to the world.
The official book trailer with footage from the gold medal race will whet your appetite, but don’t stop there. Even knowing the outcome, I couldn’t put the book down in the final chapters, it was that engaging. I’m looking forward to a PBS documentary telling the story of the nine rowers that premiers this month on August 2nd.
Why are we reading a book about rowing, the Nazis, and the Olympics? As family historians, we are mindful of the importance of saving the stuff of a person’s life. This book wouldn’t exist without Joe’s daughter, Judy, who did just that. She saved news clippings, photographs, letters and more. All things that chronicled her father’s life and achievements. Daniel James Brown in the author’s note writes of Judy:
Her contributions are too many to catalog here, but they range from sharing her vast collection of documents and photographs, to connecting me to members of the crew and their families, to reviewing and commenting on many drafts of the book at all stages of development.
All of this, however, pales in comparison with one contribution in particular: the countless hours she spent sitting with me in her living room, telling me her father’s story, sometimes tearfully, sometimes joyful, but always with unbounded pride and love.”
Judy didn’t just save memorabilia, she asked questions of everyone: the other crew members, family, friends, and especially her dad. She became the keeper of the family’s history.
Daniel James Brown met Joe Rantz when he was nearing the end of his life. As Joe began to recount his life experiences, Daniel realized this story needed to be told.
In the several months during which I was able to interview Joe before he passed away, he shared not only the fundamental facts of their story but, also, sometimes in exquisite detail, many of his specific feelings and thoughts at key junctures of the tale.
Reading the author’s notes at the end of the book is a lesson on researching a book of this nature. The author delved into numerous articles, books, and news articles to provide the background for the story. We may never write a book about our ancestor, but we can write a story about them. As you read The Boys in the Boat, watch for the details that bring this story to life and think of how you could add interest and color to your ancestor’s history. Some of the points for a family historian:
- Don’t wait to interview people – they won’t be around forever.
- Find out how people felt about events and relationships.
- Take excellent notes when interviewing, you won’t remember everything.
- Keep the stuff of a person’s life. You never know when someone will want to write a book!
A fun family connection for Nicole and me is the mention in the book of Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports writer, Royal Brougham. He covered the rowing story of Joe and his crewmates and the Olympics where they won the gold medal. My father-in-law and Nicole’s grandfather, Charles William Elder, also grew up in Seattle and became a high school baseball star. Royal Brougham wrote about “Billy Elder” and his stellar pitching and Bill remembered meeting him after some games.
News Clippings of “Billy Elder” in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer circa 1945
There is a Young Readers version of The Boys in the Boat for grades 4-7.