The Boys in the Boat, a runaway 2014 bestseller by Daniel James Brown, features the iconic University of Washington crew that bested Hitler’s shell to win the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The story has been said to capture the spirit of an era.
The book describes the Depression years in Washington. Joe Rantz, one of the college “boys,” brings the story to life. After a grueling, rainy, afternoon workout in the shell, one memorable scene describes Joe’s dinner with his girl friend. The only meal they could afford: a soup made by mixing the table ketchup with water.
A frequently quoted early passage follows:
“On the streets below the (Smith) Tower, men in fraying suit coats, worn-out shoes, and battered fedoras wheeled carts toward the street corners where they would spend the day selling apples, and oranges and packages of gum for a few pennies apiece. Around the corner on the steep incline of Yesler Way, Seattle’s old original Skid Road, more men stood in long lines, heads bent, regarding the wet sidewalk and talking softly among themselves as they waited for the soup kitchens to open.”
Set in 1930s Depression Washington this book captured my spirit too, although it took me seventy years to learn why.
My father, Hans Pederson, one of Seattle’s major early 20th century contractors, died a month after my 1933 birth. My mother, decades-younger, misled me about their life together. Learning why she did this required research that helped me both understand the Depression, and unravelled the harm done to a family by a lifetime of lies and secrets.
My quest has resulted in an upcoming memoir, The Mysterious Builder of Seattle Landmarks, the Search for My Father.
Can you always understand the ways that people who came before you influenced your life?