REVIEW: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
May 8, 2016
SYNOPSIS: Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936. The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard and to find a place he can call home. The crew is assembled by an enigmatic coach and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat builder, but it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. They remind the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together—a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism. Drawing on the boys’ own diaries and journals, their photos and memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, The Boys in the Boat is an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate story of nine working-class boys from the American west who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really meant.
REVIEW: The Boys in the Boat is incredibly detailed and triumphant. This book was a group pick in my book club and a book that I was very excited to read. I purchased the paperback copy but then life became busy, as it does for many of us, and I knew with the amount of driving I needed to do that the audiobook would be a better choice. As soon as Edward Herrmann's voice began (may he rest in peace, Grandpa Gilmore I miss you), I was hooked.
I think it was very fortuitous that I ended up listening to the audiobook because the beginning of the book was very slow; detailed and complete in setting the scene of the times, but still slow. I knew that if I had been reading the paperback that I would have read at a lowered pace and probably not been as enraptured as I eventually became. However, the paperback had pictures, and the openning quotes by George Yeoman Pocock, that I was glad to be able to see and go back and reference. I'm not sure I could entirely recommend one over the other, I found both the audiobook and the hard copy beneficial.
After learning the back story of Joe Rance in it's incredible detail, and feeling all the feels for this man and who he was able to become, the story of the boys in the boat really started to take off. What once felt like a story bogged down with particulars, suddenly became a wonderfully rich, educational, and emotional adventure. The struggles, all the triumphs and losses, on the road to the 1936 Berlin Olympics were incredible. No matter that we know how the story ends, the journey is everything. This book is packed with wisdom from a variety of sources, both written and lived. The sheer adversity and will of character is enough to create a compelling story but it is the author's writing that brought it to life and he did so magnificently. By the end of the book, the culmination of years, the Olympic races had my heart racing and my hands clenching. It was riveting. A true triumph all around.
I loved this book. One of the best non-fiction books I have ever read/listened. It is a story that not just deserved to be told but demanded. I highly recommend it in whichever form you prefer.