As someone that rowed at a collegiate level for three and half years The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown was a nostalgic and slightly emotional read. The story follows the crew that represented the United States at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin through their novice rowing days and the races and work that got them to the Olympics. I’ve always been a sucker for an emotional sports story and this one struck a chord given my background with rowing. The ending here is not a surprise, and the story of young athletes overcoming great odds and holding the hopes of more than just themselves as they compete is not a new one. I do think that there is value in reading this story though. It never hurts to be reminded that sometimes a whole world can fit in a boat and dreams can be captured at a finish line.
In the first few pages it is mentioned that when the author talked to one of the crew members, Joe Rantz, he was told specifically to make the story about the whole crew, the whole boat. This was not successfully done. It becomes very clear from the get go that this is a story about Joe Rantz and also the boat that went to the Olympics. I don’t think this is a bad thing as Joe Rantz had a fascinating life and tragic childhood. I imagine his life and struggles are pretty representative of what many people faced during the Depression. We do get to meet the other boys in the boat and we get enough background on them that they don’t feel like accessories to Joe’s story. I do wish that we learned more about Bobby Moch, the coxswain. Right before they head off to Berlin he gets news that must have changed the game for him, but after we learn about the news the story shifts back into the boys making friends with the other Olympians and exploring Germany. It felt like a bit of a letdown. Of course, I had to keep in mind while reading that these were all true events so there’s a chance the author found no more information about what happened with Bobby Moch and it would feel false to speculate on his feelings. The great tragedy of reading nonfiction is that if you wish the author had changed the story, then really what you’re wishing for is fiction.
As I mentioned earlier, I rowed for three and a half years at UW-Madison. This made it kind of interesting going into a book about rowing that had to appeal to an audience that potentially knew nothing about rowing. I think Brown did a good job explaining some of the more technical details of rowing, though I did wonder whether all the details he included were necessary. The story is ultimately about the people and their journey, as someone that knew all of the technical things already I got a little bored with the explanations. I’d be very interested to talk to someone that knows nothings about rowing and reads this book to find out if they thought the story got bogged down by the technical stuff or if it was necessary for their understanding a race and how boats are picked. I know for a fact, that there are parts of the story that only rowers and former rowers will tear up at. There were beautiful race descriptions in this book and I feel convinced that only someone that has lived can really know what that feels like. I may be letting my snobbish side show here, regardless Brown does an accurate job describing the sensation of a race.
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