The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown (New York: Viking Press, 2013. 392 pp)

Daniel James Brown is the author of two previous nonfiction books and was a finalist for the B&N Discover Award for Under a Flaming SkyHe has taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford. He lives near Seattle. 

Alma Mater

There is inevitably a bond between a person an their alma mater. Mine is the University of Washington in Seattle where I completed my undergraduate degree. Eventually, I moved on to do some graduate work, but any allegiance I have is for the good ol’ UW. When Viking approached me asking if I would be willing to review a book about my University, a resounding “yes!” was my reply.

The Boys in the Boat is a narrative of the quest of the University of Washington rowing team during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Think a nautical Chariots of Fire, and you have a fairly good depiction of the book.

Unlikely Heroes

We meet Joe Rantz, the pivotal character of the book on an all-too-typical gray day in Seattle in 1933. The overcast sky doesn’t last, but makes way for a beautiful sunny day as the rowers sit at the Montlake Cut between Union Bay and Lake Washington.

“For Joe Rantz, perhaps more than any of the other young men sitting by the Montlake Cut, something hung in the balance that afternoon, and he was all too aware of it…He knew he might not belong here at all, and he certainly couldn’t stay long in this world of pressed trousers, of briar pipes and cardigan sweaters, of interesting ideas, sophisticated conversation, and intriguing opportunities, if things did not go well in the shell house…To fail at the rowing business would mean, at best, returning to a small, bleak town on the Olympic Peninsula with nothing ahead of him but the prospect of living alone in a cold, empty, half-built house…At worst it would mean joining a long line of broken men standing outside a soup kitchen like the one down on Yesler Way” (13).

Joe Rantz’ story is the emotional center of the narrative, as can be clearly seen by the quotation above. He, however, is not alone, joined by Gordan Adam, Chuck Day, Don Hume, George “Shorty” Hunt, Jim “Stub” McMillin, Mob Moch (famed coxswain), Roger Morris, and John White, Jr. Together, these young men form “the boys in the boat”, the 1936 Olympic crew from the UW. Rantz, the young man boasting overalls and a small town accent from Sequim, WA, gets a shot as a freshman in 1933 to be a part of the crew.

Propaganda and Pride

The 1936 Olympics were a time of embattled National aspiration. From Germany, it was a less-than-veiled attempt to show Aryan purity and Nazi supremacy, carefully orchestrated by Jeoseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for the Nazi party. However, for America, the story of an enigmatic coach, an eccentric British boat builder (George Pocock), and the bonding of young men from different walks of life created unbridled pride.

Daniel James Brown creates a very interesting tale, to be certain. It starts off rather slow and labored, as he takes painstaking efforts to paint the landscape of Seattle accurately. The tale picks up as the battle for the Olympic gold becomes clear. Truthfully, it’s hard to make an Olympic saga boring, and the story of The Boys in the Boat is a wonderful depiction of an incredibly complex tale. Many parties had to work together for the dream of gold to be a reality, and Brown interweaves the narratives quite adeptly to form a brilliant telling of Olympic history.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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