Review: The Boys in the Boat

I was given this book (a New York Times no. 1 bestseller) by one of my sons-in-law who rowed crew at university, but didn’t know that I had done some rowing, although I was never very good. In spite of the pain that one suffers when one is racing in an eight-man shell, it can be a truly addictive sport. And it can be very exciting for spectators cheering their boat, particularly during the last minute of a race.

This is an historic novel, and, paradoxically, quite suspenseful, written by Daniel James Brown. On his website he says: “I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended Diablo Valley College, the University of California at Berkeley, and UCLA. I taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford before becoming a technical writer and editor. I now write narrative nonfiction books full time. My primary interest as a writer is in bringing compelling historical events to life as vividly and accurately as I can. I live in the country outside of Seattle, Washington with my wife, two daughters, and an assortment of cats, dogs, chickens, and honeybees. When I am not writing, I am likely to be birding, gardening, fly fishing, reading American history, or chasing bears away from the bee hives.”

Daniel James Brown

This book is about the eight-man (and a coxswain) crew from the University of Washington which won the Olympics in Nazi Germany in 1936. It is a true and memorable story, though almost none of us alive today have any memory of the event, and few ever heard the story. The central character is Joe Rantz, a poor, but tall and strong boy, who is beginning his freshman year at the University of Washington in the Depression of 1933. We learn about his checkered family background and his decision to row in an eight-man shell, of the difficulties he went through to win a place on the freshmen’s no. 1 boat. From that point, Joe struggles to win a seat on the junior varsity boat, the Washington varsity boat and the US Olympic boat, in all that time never losing a competitive race. The competition included the University of California crews and the best eastern crews: Penn, Navy, Cornell and Syracuse. There are plenty of obstacles that Joe and the rest of his crew have to overcome: financial worries, exhaustion, family relationship issues, training problems, and more. Each major race they face is clouded with uncertainty, but, since it’s a true story, we know in advance the real outcome, yet we live through the tension with Joe and his teammates. In Germany, for example, the final race seems to be stacked against the Americans: the Germans and and the Italians are given the two most favourable lanes; the Americans, the least favourable lane. Moreover, the American stroke (the stern-most oarsman who sets the pace) was ill.

Apart from the vivid writing and nearly constant tension maintained throughout, one has to marvel at the extensive and detailed research which the author had to do: interviewing Joe’s daughter, fellow crewmen, dozens of others and reading reams of records. Through it all, he is able to capture the magic that an eight-man crew can create when they are in the ‘swing’. There is plenty of captivating rowing folklore here. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting book.

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