I recently finished The Boys in the Boat, and I enjoyed it from stem to stern. One part Seabiscuit, one part Unbroken, and one part Chariots of Fire, it’s the story of “Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.”
In summary, it’s simply a good tale well told. The story itself is a fascinating one that for much too long has been little known beyond the lore of the University of Washington athletic department. Moreover, author Daniel James Brown is, like John McPhee, the kind of writer who can tell you how they mix concrete in Nigeria and fascinate you with it for 416 pages. Put the two together and you understand why the book was a #1 New York Times Bestseller and has sold well over a million copies.
Joe Rantz and “the boat”
Brown tells most of the story through the life of Joe Rantz, the last oarsman added to the University of Washington crew that eventually won the U.S. rowing championship and the Olympic gold medal only a few yards from Hitler’s gaze. (He’s second from the left in the photo.) I marveled at Rantz’s determination and endurance through obstacle after obstacle from his later childhood until his graduation from college.
Here’s an excerpt recalling Brown’s first conversation with Rantz, just months before Joe died:
His voice was reedy, fragile, and attenuated almost to the breaking point. From time to time he faded into silence. Slowly, though, with cautious prompting from his daughter, he began to spin out some of the threads of his life story. Recalling his childhood and his young adulthood during the Great Depression, he spoke haltingly but resolutely about a series of hardships he had endured and obstacles he had overcome, a tale that, as I sat taking notes, at first surprised and then astonished me.
But it wasn’t until he began to talk about his rowing career at the University of Washington that he started, from time to time, to cry. He talked about learning the art of rowing, about shells and oars, about tactics and technique. He reminisced about long, cold hours on the water under steel-gray skies, about smashing victories and defeats narrowly averted, about traveling to Germany and marching under Hitler’s eyes into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, and about his crewmates. None of these recollections brought him to tears, though. It was when he tried to talk about “the boat” that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.
At first I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory. Or did he mean his teammates, the improbable assemblage of young men who had pulled off one of rowing’s greatest achievements? Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both— it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience—a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.
The deprivation and loneliness Rantz experienced during the Depression were heart-rending. In God’s providence, however (and by the way, this book is not written from an explicitly Christian perspective), what Joe suffered before and during his rowing days, and his grit in overcoming his circumstances (for example, to pay for college he worked one summer suspended by a rope while using a jack-hammer against a rock cliff) were the making of him.
Rowing, and much more
In 1936, as unimaginable as it seems today, collegiate rowing trailed only boxing, horse racing (think Seabiscuit, War Admiral, and others), and of course, baseball for the most column inches in the sports pages of newspapers. The national collegiate rowing championships—which drew from a relatively small number of schools—would sometimes attract 75,000 spectators to the banks of the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, NY, to watch crews of eight men row racing shells two or three miles.
Despite my lifelong love of sports and enjoyment of 20th century sports history, I had no idea rowing was once this popular in America. I knew it to be an Olympic sport, and that Oxford and Cambridge had been rowing against each other almost as far back as the time of William the Conqueror who rowed over from Normandy in 1066.
Now I appreciate so much about the sport, even if it’s as a landlubber who’s never been in a racing shell nor watched a race in person. The Boys in the Boat gave me (if only a reader’s) sense of the full-bodied exertion required in rowing, the various roles of each of the eight oarsmen, the coxswain’s many crucial responsibilities as “quarterback” of the boat, the possible strategies in a race, the finesse required of each stroke of the oar, the history of the sport in America, the exquisite craftsmanship of a master shell builder, and so much more, all with Brown’s mesmerizing touch.
I learned a great deal more than about rowing, too. Although I thought I knew a fair amount about the Great Depression, Brown introduced me to some of the hardships I’d not previously known, such as the unusual weather conditions during much of the early Thirties which resulted in the Dust Bowl. Along the way I discovered more about the Pacific Northwest, college life during the Depression, the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, and Nazi Germany (especially Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Nazi film producer Leni Riefenstahl), than I ever expected when I started the book. The Boys in the Boat is just a beautiful weaving of history and biography that pulls you into its tapestry.
“It has to be about the boat”
The story is so compelling that you may want to intermingle your reading with listening, so the Kindle edition with Audible narration combination is worth considering.
The website for the book, which includes a book trailer, is here.
I think it would be a great book for dads to read with their sons. If you have younger boys, there’s also a “Young Readers Adaptation” for readers in grades 5–9.
As Brown and Rantz finished their first conversation, the author writes:
I shook Joe’s hand again and told him I would like to come back and talk to him some more, and that I’d like to write a book about his rowing days. Joe grasped my hand again and said he’d like that, but then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, “But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.”
 Brown, Daniel James. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2013). Kindle Edition, p. 2.
 Brown, p. 4.