Joe Rantz ended up in one of the finest eight-man crews ever to make it to the Olympics largely because he needed a janitor’s job to pay for college. After a poverty-stricken, affection-deprived boyhood, he was trying desperately to earn enough money to get through the University of Washington. Earning a spot on the rowing team guaranteed a part-time campus job. So in 1933, he tried out for crew, and in 1936, he and his boatmates won gold in Berlin.

Author Daniel James Brown had the good luck to encounter Rantz at the end of his long life. Brown’s interviews with Rantz and, after his death, with his daughter, form the heart of The Boys in the Boat, an inspirational yarn that joins books like Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time as a reminder of how bad it can get and how tough ordinary Americans can be.

The 1936 University of Washington crew that beat the Italians and Germans at Hitler’s Olympics was no rich-boy endeavor. Big, strong young men coming of age during the Great Depression, most of them had worked in logging camps, farms, even building the Grand Coulee Dam. Theirs was the Seabiscuit of rowing shells, at a time when rowing’s popularity as a spectator sport was sky-high.

The boys rowed for two men who became legends: head coach Al Ulbrickson and freshman coach Tom Bolles. They worked in tandem with George Pocock, an extraordinary Englishman who revolutionized shell-building and rowing technique—and, along the way, gave Rantz the advice about trust and character that changed his life.

Brown weaves the crew’s rollercoaster of ups and downs with the parallel preparations in Germany, where the Nazis temporarily suspended their campaign of terror to convince the world that they weren’t so bad. But ultimately, Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Olympia captured a different kind of triumph of the will, as the boat, guided by the flawless strategy of a coxswain of Jewish descent, came from behind to beat the teams they would be fighting on the battlefield in a few years.

Rantz had a particularly horrific childhood, marred not only by death and economic hardship, but also by a stepmother who literally threw him out of the house. When he joined the UW crew, he found a true home. “It was when he tried to talk about ‘the boat’ that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes,” writes Brown. The “boys” are all gone now; what a sportswriter called their “poem of motion” lives on.

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