Boys, Boats and Bombs

Grounded in history

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Daniel Brown’s The Boys in the Boat is one of those books that librarians and booksellers dream about—fascinating characters, grounded in history, local interest and a story that can keep you up way too late succumbing to “just one more chapter.” It also feeds both a cultural fascination with events of World War II and the excitement and passion that surround the Olympic Games.

Brown tells the story of the University of Washington’s rowing team and their quest to win gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He chooses Joe Rantz as the focal point; very different from the well-heeled young men trying for a place on the team, Joe grew up dirt poor and was left by his father and stepmother to scrabble out a bare living on the Olympic Peninsula during the darkest days of the Depression. It is a wonder Joe made it to UDub at all, but, once there, he found a sense of home and a reason to hope for a brighter future in the Shell House on the shores of Lake Washington.

Stories of Joe’s boyhood elucidate the man he brings to the team, one whose self-esteem is worn by abandonment and poverty, but who carries within the grit to prove everyone wrong. Interspersed are snapshots of Hitler’s activities in Germany—the ugly beginnings of the war on Jews, “sanitizing” Berlin of anti-Semitism for the world community attending the Olympics, and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s role as image shaper for the Hitler regime.

George Pocock’s world-renowned, hand-crafted boats are themselves both characters and heroes in this story, and Brown recognizes Pocock and his graceful boats as the spiritual center for the team by starting each chapter with a Pocock quote. Al Ulbrickson’s transcendent coaching drives the boys and helps get the right team of rowers in the boat to win gold. But the ineffable magic that occurs (and sometimes fails to occur) when that team strokes perfectly together is what keeps you turning pages in this must-read title.

In another great read that takes place just a few years after Joe Rantz and his teammates were in Hitler’s Berlin competing for Olympic gold, scientists around the world were startled by a discovery made in a German lab—when placed next to radioactive materials, uranium atoms split in two. Thus began a race of a completely different sort, though no less international in scope, to create the world’s most formidable weapon.

Steve Sheinkin tells the story of Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon through three characters—a spy for the Soviets (Harry Gold), leader of the Manhattan Project (J. Robert Oppenheimer), and a Norwegian resistance soldier (Knut Haukelid) who sabotaged German heavy water plants. Filled with archival photos and documents, this may be a lesson in history, but it reads like an international spy thriller. Sheinkin has readers on the edge of their seats in anticipation as years of physics theory are tested in the real world, only to have that jubilation quickly turn to horror as they understand the reality of their creation.

Bomb is a Newbery Honor book and was published for middle and high school readers, but adults should not be deterred from picking this one up—like The Boys in the Boat, it’s available at your local public library.  In fact, read it (or listen to it on CD or download the audiobook) with your kids and then bring the whole family to Whatcom Middle School March 3 to hear Sheinkin speak when he visits the county for the first Whatcom READS! Kids & Teens event.

Lisa Gresham is the Adult Services Coordinator for the Whatcom County Library System. Check out her “What Do I Read Next?” blog at wcls.org. When not reading, she enjoys hiking and exploring wild Whatcom County.

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