Quarantined Review – The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

I’ve tried to write this review several times over the year or so since I’ve started this blog. At first, I wanted to delay the writing it of because if I started by writing a review of my favorite book, then where would I go from there? I figured that I would hold off on writing this review until something big happened. Maybe when I got a job, or something, I would celebrate with this review as a thing of joy. Maybe if I was feeling particularly depressed I’d write this to cheer myself up and break through a funk. But for whatever reason, it never really felt timely to write this. Well, now it does. So join me after the page break for a review of my favorite book, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.

The Boys in the Boat is the story of nine men and their path to gold at the Berlin Olympics in the 8-Man Rowing event. In brief, in 1936 a team of college students from the bustling but largely unknown city of Seattle, Washington captured the hearts and minds of the United States as they competed in Hitler’s Germany in the 8-seat Men’s Rowing event. It’s not a spoiler to say that they won the gold medal because like so many great stories, the “plot” of The Boys in the Boat, that is the series of events that happened historically in a chronological order, is of secondary importance. Because in truth, The Boys in the Boat is an incredibly heartfelt narrative about empathy, interdependence and the power of “pulling together.” It’s also a fascinating portrait of America in the 1930’s while providing a staggering amount of insight into everything from the history of Seattle to the culture of rowing. But perhaps most importantly, The Boys in the Boat is a character study about nine exceptional young men from the University of Washington.

In order to discuss what makes The Boys in the Boat special, I feel like we should start with the author. Daniel James Brown is a narrative nonfiction author who specializes in tragedies. His first novel, Under a Flaming Sky, tells the story of the Great Hinkley Fire of 1894. It’s the chronicle of a small lumber town in Minnesota that was utterly destroyed by a freak conflagration created by the convergence of three forest fires. It’s a frankly harrowing narrative to process. More than 418 people died on that day and Brown is meticulous in his account. An entire chapter is dedicated to the myriad horrific ways that a person can die in a fire like the one that struck Hinkley. Brown followed up Flaming Sky with The Indifferent Stars Above, which is about the Donner Party, another historical tragedy. Following up two books filled with death and sorrow with a story that could form the basis of a Disney Sports Drama is at first odd but it makes sense when you consider the inspiration for the book, Joe Rantz.

Joe Rantz was one of the boys in the Husky Clipper, and if the story can be said to have a protagonist, it’s him. Joe Rantz lived a life of incredible hardship leading up to the Berlin Olympics. His mother died when he was young, and his father was prone to abandonment. I don’t want to spoil all of the details, because the story of Joe’s life is frankly astounding. I’ve read or listened to this book several times, and every time I feel a spectacular plethora of emotions ranging from shock to anger on behalf of the young man. Joe learned to survive only by becoming extremely self-reliant. He fended for himself for much of his high school career, foraging in the woods to find food when he couldn’t afford to buy any. He earned what little money he could by busking with his banjo, or through more creative means between classes. Eventually, his brother took him to live in Seattle to finish high school, where he was recruited to join the University of Washington’s men’s rowing team by the head coach, Al Ulbrickson.

The first time I read The Boys in the Boat in 2014, I knew nothing about rowing. Most modern folks know very little about the sport, unless they crewed themselves in high school or college. Luckily, Brown is able to capture the essence of the sport with stunning clarity. Rowing is a backbreaking sport. In the course of a 2000 meter race, an Olympic rowing team will expend roughly the same amount of energy as playing the several full basketball games back to back to back. And they’ll do so in the span of only a handful of minutes. What’s more, rowing is a sport of mental alacrity and endurance. A rower has to have a keen mastery of not just the technique of rowing a shell, but also an acute awareness of where he sits in the boat and what he is meant to do. The rower in the third seat has a different job from the one in the second, and the one in the seventh is different from either of them. This is to say nothing of the strategic and tactical acumen required of an Olympic-caliber coxswain. Beyond anything else though, rowing is a sport about teamwork. it’s not enough to simply row well, the rower must pull in perfect sync with the other seven. Of all the people in the shell, only the coxswain has a clear view of where the boat is even going. A rowing team must essentially surrender themselves to each other, forget all personal grievances or troubles and pull as one unit.

This need to surrender forms the basis of Joe’s character arc throughout the narrative. Joe’s life prior to joining the team was one of almost radical individualism for a child. Life up to that point had been largely cold and uncaring for Joe Rantz and the reader can sympathize with his defense mechanisms. So it’s extremely gratifying to watching Joe lower his guard and slowly become part of the team. The reader joins him on this journey, learning more and more about the other eight boys as Joe does. We learn that the boys on Joe’s team are a lot like him: honest, dependable and true. Meanwhile, Brown contrasts the journey of the boys in Seattle with another, much darker story.

The 1936 Olympic Games were hosted in Berlin, Germany at the height of Adolf Hitler’s power. As Brown himself is quick to note, Hitler was initially fiercely opposed to the idea of hosting an international sporting event. Only the influence of Joseph Goebbels allowed the games to progress. After being convinced of the idea, Hitler was ardent that the games would be Nazi Germany’s great debut on the world stage. It would be a chance to show the power and prosperity of his Third Reich and reinforce the Nazi belief in Aryan supremacy. Brown tells a parallel narrative in Germany. While Joe Rantz trains and competes, the Nazis construct their Olympic coliseum, The Reich Sportsfeld. Additionally, the story zeroes in on several high ranking Nazis who were integral to the games, notably Goebbels himself and Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Brown uses these historical figures to contrast with Joe and the rest of the Seattle team. While these young men are becoming a team, Nazis like Goebbels and Riefenstahl practiced a sort of horrific, all-encompassing individualism. Riefenstahl in particular was ambitious and power-hungry in her assent through the ranks of German propagandists. Even the German Olympic rowing team is painted in a similar light during their (surprisingly small) appearance. Given the popularity of rowing in the 30s, the Germans had invested heavily in their rowing team and even created rules during the Olympics themselves to benefit their team and the teams of their allies. Gross individualism versus humble, almost rustic interdependence forms the backbone of the narrative’s ideological and thematic conflict. I think Daniel James Brown saw, in the nine boys from Seattle, a sort of ideal representation of what we call The Greatest Generation. He celebrates their honest natures and simple goodness and directly compares them to the young GIs who would fight across Europe and the Pacific only a handful of years after their victory.

In the end though I keep coming back to The Boys in the Boat because it’s such a satisfying read. Brown’s writing has an affable tone. Narrated by character actor Edward Herrmann, the audio-book comes across as almost folksy, as though a grandparent is recounting a tale around a roaring fire. Brown’s prose adds character to his recreation of Washington during the Great Depression. He seems to take a particular joy in describing the humble origins of the nine boys. Lumber towns, dairy farms and sleeping villages up and down the Olympic Peninsula are described with a caring touch. The cast is handled with similar care and grace. Men like Al Ulbrickson, the dour head coach of Wasington, Royal Braum, the reporter who followed the Washington team’s exploits or Ky Ebright, the head coach of the team’s bitter rivals in Berkley are fully realized. No secondary character is given more attention though, than George Yeoman Pocock. Pocock was, in many ways, the heart and soul of American rowing in the era despite being born on the Thames in London. Officially, he was the University of Washington boat builder, though he sold his iconic cedar rowing shells to colleges and clubs across the United States. Unofficially, Pocock was the high priest of American rowing, the sport’s most devoted prelate and evangelist. Many of his most iconic quotes form the introductions to chapters. In fact, Pocock’s old-fashioned wisdom feels so plainly universal that I’m proud to say I’ve used it myself in the classroom as a student teacher.

I am not a subtle writer. By now, I feel that it should be self-evident why I’ve chosen to write this review of this book now. The COVID-19 outbreak is a tragic and frequently terrifying event that we are all dealing with. We live in a time of social isolation, and self-distancing. It’s easy to feel like we’re all alone. But on the other hand, it’s easy to see that we aren’t. Every day I rely of my family and friends for strength in this time of hardships and I’ve seen evidence of the same across social media and around the world. In a very literal sense, the COVID-19 pandemic is an apocalypse, especially given that the actual meaning of the word is “sudden revelation.” COVID-19 has revealed to all of us a great many flaws and weaknesses in our modern society, but I think its also more gradually revealing our own collective strength. While the US federal government has been negligent in their response, the US people have come together for the most part with the exception of the cruel and the foolish. In order to survive this pandemic we have to rely on each other. As such, I can think of no better time to recommend a book about the basic human decency and interdependence triumphing in the face of hardship and adversity. This is a story where honest, hardworking men literally defeat the Nazis not with bullets but with love for one another. If you have ever considered my writings to be good for anything, then I insist that you pick up this book. We live in difficult times, and all of us are at the very least wary of the future. But we’re not in this alone, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary. In times of crisis, people pull together. We did so in the Great Depression. We did so in the face of fascist tyranny during World War 2. And I’m certain we will do so again. In the meantime, enjoy a brisk, though by no means insubstantial read that could not be more timely. Because right now, in a very real way, we are all the boys in the boat.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown is available from Penguin Books.

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