The Boys in the Boat (Young Readers Adaptation): The True Story of an American Team's Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics

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9780451475923: The Boys in the Boat (Young Readers Adaptation): The True Story of an American Team's Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics

The #1 New York Times bestseller about the Greatest Generation freshly adapted for the next generation.
 
For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Great Depression comes the astonishing tale of nine working-class boys from the American West who at the 1936 Olympics showed the world what true grit really meant. With rowers who were the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew was never expected to defeat the elite East Coast teams, yet they did, going on to shock the world by challenging the German boat rowing for Adolf Hitler.
 
At the center of the tale is Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, whose personal quest captures the spirit of his generation—the generation that would prove in the coming years that the Nazis could not prevail over American determination and optimism.
 
This deeply emotional yet easily accessible young readers adaptation of the award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller features never-before-seen photographs, highly visual back matter, and an exclusive new introduction.

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About the Author:

Daniel James Brown is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Boys in the Boat, which won the ABA Nonfiction Book of the Year Award and the Washington State Book Award. His two previous nonfiction books, The Indifferent Stars Above and Under a Flaming Sky, were both finalists for the Washington State Book Award. He has taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford University. He lives outside Seattle. You can learn more at danieljamesbrown.com. 

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ever since The Boys in the Boat was first published, I have been traveling around the country talking to people about the story. When I first started, I quickly noticed that most of the people in my audiences were quite old. Some of them, in fact, were old enough to remember the events at the heart of the story, even though those events took place almost eighty years ago.

But lately something interesting has begun to happen. More and more young people have begun to show up at my book talks. Often these younger people join with the older people, coming up to the front of the room to have their books signed. Frequently they pause at the signing table just to tell me how much they enjoyed the story and what it means to them personally. It sometimes seems strange to me to have a ninety-year-old grandma and a twelve-year-old student standing next to each other in front of me at the signing table. But listening to what both groups of readers have to say about the story, I have begun to understand. Some things are timeless.

At first glance, this may seem to be a story about a time and place that is very different from the time and place you live in. After all, the young men at the center of this story dressed very differently than you and your friends do. They talked differently. They drove cars that look now as if they belong in museums. They sang songs that sound corny to our modern ears. They thought a radio was a marvel of modern technology. They lived through world events that now seem almost like ancient history.

But here’s the thing. The boys in the boat were just that: boys. The problems they wrestled with were the same that you and your friends likely wrestle with today: family problems, making the team, succeeding at school, fitting in with other kids, learning whom you can and can’t trust, finding a way to make some money, figuring out how you feel about the opposite sex, deciding who and what you want to be a few years down the road. Under the surface, they really weren’t all that different.

None of that, though, is really what the young people who come up to me at book events want to talk about. What they recognize in the story—and what they want to share with me—is the sheer excitement of being young, having a goal, striving to accomplish that goal, and making it happen, just as the boys in the boat did. Sometimes they talk about their volleyball team winning the regionals. Sometimes they talk about making first violin in the school orchestra. Sometimes they talk about wanting to be the first in their family to go to college. Sometimes they talk about falling short of their goal but being inspired by the book to try again.

It is easy for those of us who are older and count ourselves wise to forget that it is the young who most often move the world forward. It is the young who have the boundless energy, passion, optimism, courage, and idealism to try to do what we elders might say is impossible. That’s what the boys in the boat attempted to do in this story. That’s why, eighty years later at my book-signing table, old men and women come to me with tears in their eyes, proudly remembering when they were young and full of fire. And it’s why standing right next to them are young men and women with beaming faces, bearing tales of their own brave attempts at the near impossible.

So as you read this book, I hope you will keep in mind that at its heart this is a story about growing up, about wrestling with hope and doubt, about dreaming big, about going for the gold. In that sense, it’s really a story about you.

Dawn row on Lake Washington.

This book is a true story. It was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day, several years ago, when I climbed over a split-rail cedar fence and made my way to the modest house where Joe Rantz lay dying.

Joe was my neighbor Judy’s father, and she had asked me to come down and meet him. I knew only two things about him when I knocked on her door that day. I knew that in his midseventies he had single-handedly hauled a number of cedar logs down a mountain, cut and split them by hand, then built the nearly half-mile-long pasture fence I had just climbed over. And I knew that he had been one of nine young men from the state of Washington who shocked both the sports world and Adolf Hitler by winning a gold medal in rowing at the 1936 Olympics.

When Judy opened the door and ushered me into her cozy living room, Joe was stretched out in a recliner with his feet up, all six foot three of him. He had a thin white beard, and his eyes were puffy. An oxygen tank stood nearby. Rain flecked a window that looked out into the wet woods. A fire was popping and hissing in the woodstove. Jazz tunes from the 1930s and 1940s were playing quietly on the stereo.

Judy introduced me, and Joe offered me an extraordinarily long, thin hand. We talked for a while. Joe’s voice was thin and reedy, not much more than a whisper. When the conversation began to turn to his own life, I leaned closer and took out my notepad. I was surprised at first, then astonished, at what this man had endured and overcome in his life. But it wasn’t until he began to talk about his rowing career that he started, from time to time, to cry. He talked about learning the art of rowing, about the sleek and delicate wooden boats known as “shells,” about tactics and techniques. He told stories about long, cold hours on the water under steel-gray skies, about smashing victories, and about marching under Adolf Hitler’s eyes into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. But it was when he tried to talk about “the boat” that the tears really welled up in his bright eyes.

At first I didn’t know what he meant by “the boat.” I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory. Then I thought he meant his crewmates. Eventually I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it was something bigger than that, something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience, a golden moment long ago, when he had been part of something much larger than himself. Joe was crying partly for the loss of that moment, but much more for the sheer beauty of it.

A Washington crew working out, circa 1929.

As I was preparing to leave that afternoon, Judy removed Joe’s gold medal from the glass case against the wall and handed it to me. The medal had vanished once, years before. The family had searched high and low, then given it up for lost before they finally found it, buried in some insulating material in the attic. A squirrel had apparently taken a liking to the glimmer of the gold and hidden the medal away in its nest. As Judy was telling me this, it occurred to me that Joe’s story, like the medal, had been squirreled away out of sight for too long.

I shook Joe’s hand and told him I would like to come back and talk to him some more. I said that I’d like to write a book about his rowing days. Joe grasped my hand again and said he’d like that, but then his voice broke once more. “But not just about me,” he whispered. “It has to be about the boat.”

The Washington shell house, 1930s.

1

On a sunny October afternoon in 1933, two young men, taller than most, hurried across the University of Washington’s campus. The school was perched on a bluff overlooking the still waters of Seattle’s Lake Washington. A gray, overcast morning had given way to a radiant day, and students were lounging on the grass in front of the massive new stone library, eating, chatting, and studying. But the two boys, both freshmen in their first weeks of college, did not stop. They were on a mission.

One of them, six-foot-three Roger Morris, had a loose, gangly build, dark hair, and heavy black eyebrows. The other, Joe Rantz, was a pencil tip shorter, but more solidly built, with broad shoulders, powerful legs, and a strong jaw. He wore his blond hair in a crew cut and watched the scene through gray eyes verging into blue.

The boys, who had recently met in engineering class, rounded the library and descended a long grassy slope. They crossed Montlake Boulevard, dodging a steady stream of black automobiles. After a few more turns they followed a dirt road running through open woods and into a marshy area at the edge of Lake Washington. As they walked they began to overtake other boys headed in the same direction.

Finally they came to a point of land jutting out into the water. An odd-looking building stood there, an old airplane hangar covered with weather-beaten shingles and inset with enormous windows. The sides slanted up toward the roof. At the front, a wide wooden ramp stretched from enormous sliding doors to a long floating dock. Lake Washington spread out to the east. The canal known as the Cut stretched to the west, connecting to Portage Bay and the calm waters of Lake Union.

A crowd of young men, 175 in all, milled about nervously. They were mostly tall and lean, like Joe and Roger, though a dozen or so were noticeably short and slight. And they all shared the same goal. They wanted to make the University of Washington’s freshman rowing team.

A handful of current team members, older boys wearing white jerseys emblazoned with large purple Ws, stood with their arms crossed, eyeing the newcomers, sizing them up. Joe and Roger stepped inside the building. Along each wall of the cavernous room, the long, sleek racing shells were stacked four high on wooden racks. With their polished wooden hulls turned upward, they gleamed in white shafts of light that fell from the windows overhead. Faded but still colorful banners from rival colleges hung from the rafters. Dozens of spruce oars, each ten to twelve feet long and tipped with a white blade, stood on end in the corners of the room. The air was dry and still. It smelled sweetly of varnish and freshly sawn cedar. The sound of someone working with a wood rasp came from the back, up in a loft.

Joe and Roger signed in, then returned to the bright light outside and sat on a bench, waiting for instructions. Joe glanced at Roger, who seemed relaxed and confident.

“Aren’t you nervous?” Joe whispered.

Roger glanced back at him. “I’m panicked. I just look like this to demoralize the competition.” Joe smiled briefly, too close to panic himself to hold the smile long.

For Joe, more than anyone else there, something important hung in the balance that day, and it was more than a spot on the crew. He already felt as if he didn’t fit in with most of the other students on campus. Most of the young men around him were city boys dressed neatly in freshly pressed woolen slacks and expensive cardigan sweaters. Their fathers were doctors and lawyers. They were mostly unbothered by the problems plaguing so much of the country that fall.

America was in the fourth year of the Great Depression. Ten million people had no job and no prospect of finding one. No one knew when the hard times might end. As many as two million people were homeless. In downtown Seattle that morning, hungry men stood in long lines waiting for soup kitchens to open. Others prepared to spend the day trying to sell apples and oranges for a few pennies apiece. Down by the waterfront, in a crowded shantytown called Hooverville, mothers huddled over campfires and children awoke in damp cardboard boxes that served as their beds.

Seattle’s Hooverville.

Joe himself had been on his own for years, with no one at home to support him. Every day he wore the same old wrinkled hand-me-down sweater and the same dusty old shoes. He had worked for a year after high school to save up enough money to pay for his first year of college. Yet his savings were probably not going to last. If he ran out of money, there was a good chance he’d have to drop out of school, head back to his small, bleak hometown, and look forward to a life of odd jobs, foraging in the woods for food, and living alone in a cold, half-finished house. A spot on the freshman crew could prevent that. Each rower was guaranteed a part-time job on campus. That job might just bring in enough money to get Joe through four years of school. Then he could earn an engineering degree and find a good job. If all went well, he could marry his high school sweetheart, a bright, pretty girl named Joyce who stood by him no matter what.

But making the team was not going to be easy. Within a few short weeks, only a handful of the 174 boys gathered around him would still be contenders for seats in the first freshman boat. That was the one Joe felt he needed to be in to guarantee his place on the team. In the end, there were only nine seats in the boat.

Harry, Fred, Nellie, and Joe Rantz, circa 1917.

2

The path Joe followed down to the shell house that afternoon was only the last few hundred yards of a much longer, harder, and at times darker journey.

Joe was the second son of Harry Rantz and Nellie Maxwell. Harry was a big man, well over six feet tall, large in the hands and feet. He was a tinkerer and inventor, a dreamer of big dreams. In his spare time he loved to work with his hands and build contraptions of all kinds. He fiddled with machines, took apart mechanical devices in order to understand them. He even designed and built his own version of an automobile from scratch. Nellie Maxwell was a piano teacher and the daughter of a preacher. They had their first child, Fred, in 1899. Seven years later, looking for a place where Harry could make his mark on the world, they headed west from Pennsylvania, crossed the country, and settled down in Spokane, Washington.

The town was surrounded by ponderosa pine forest and open range country. The summers were crackling hot, the air dry and perfumed with the vanilla scent of ponderosa bark. In the autumn, towering dust storms would blow in from the wheat country to the west. The winters were bitter cold, the springs stingy and slow in coming. The Rantz family moved into a small frame house on the north side of the cold, clear Spokane River, and Joe was born there in March of 1914.

Harry set up an automobile shop. Each morning he rose at four thirty to go to work, and often he didn’t return home until well after seven in the evening. It was hard work, but his business did well and he was able to buy his family nice things. Nellie taught piano to neighborhood children and doted on her sons, lavishing love on them and watching over them carefully.

On Sunday mornings the family attended church together, then spent the day relaxing. Sometimes they just walked into town to buy freshly made peach or strawberry ice cream. Sometimes they drove out to a nearby lake, where they could rent boats and explore the shoreline or spend a hot afternoon swimming or sitting on the grassy banks enjoying a picnic. But the best part for Joe was when they went to Natatorium Park in the cool shade of the cottonwood trees down by the river. Something interesting and fun wa...

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