Two Nonfiction books about the Pacific Northwest: ‘The Boys in the Boat’ and ‘The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff’

I must confess–every year I tell myself that I will try to read more nonfiction and ever year I read a bit more but perhaps not as much as I had intended.

Last year I happened to read two nonfiction titles that delve into different slices of Washington state history.

The Boys in the BoatFirst, I had heard so much about The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics by Daniel James Brown. It is one of those books that has captured the spirit and the imagination of our region with a story of timeless triumph. So when a bookstore customer told me, “You need to read it–it will make your heart bigger!”–I finally took the plunge.

The Boys in the Boat is about the University of Washington rowing team made up of young men from humble farming and fishing families who made it to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. At the heart of this narrative of sportsman perseverance on the eve of war is the story of Joe Rantz, a young student abandoned by his family whose personal journey as a man and an athlete is as emotional as it is impressive. Brown also provides a portrait of Washington in a time of transition as well as the growing horror in Germany that the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels worked hard to sweep under the carpet leading up the the Olympic Games. Rowing, an elite sport often ruled by Ivy League teams, was also a sport where the Pacific Northwest had been previously discounted. But Seattle boat-builder George Yeoman Pocock and rower Joe Rantz laid those misconceptions to rest. I found myself crying as I turned the final pages.

The Boy Who Shot the SheriffThe Boy Who Shot the Sheriff: The Redemption of Herbert Nicholls Jr. by Nancy Bartley reveals a Washington state crime case whose furor and importance has faded with time. Herbert Nicholls, Jr. grew up in a poor, unstable family. In 1931, at the age of 12, when caught robbing a convenience store at night, Herbert fatally shot the Asotin County sheriff and was sentenced to life in prison. The Nicholls case received a lot of attention at the time, for the sentencing of a child as an adult and because prominent reformer and preacher Father Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, made his plea for Nicholls release a national campaign. Father Flanagan proclaimed “there is no such thing as a bad boy” and became a renowned figure that inspired the 1938 film “Boys Town” starring Spencer Tracy. Nicholls, the youngest prisoner at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, never knew that Father Flanagan was fighting for him. A probing look into crime and punishment.

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