Daniel James Brown brings a novel-like quality to his intense book The Boys in the Boat. The subtitle, Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, informs the historical nature of the story. But Brown makes it deeply personal as well, following one of the “boys” closely. We learn about his family, his heartbreaks, the way he fits in, and how he feels he never will.
In summary, eight oarsmen and one coxswain combine to make a talented rowing crew. The story is in the coach’s decisions regarding which boys made it into the boat, as well as what happened once the group coalesced. The boys began their experience together at the tryouts to row crew at the University of Washington in Seattle. Crew is a sport of the elite, even of kings. But these boys had humble beginnings. Most of them barely scraped together tuition money each year. Crew gave no scholarships, and even if it did, living expenses would be hard to come by.
Brown places the crew team solidly in the history of the times—America’s Great Depression and the years leading up to World War II. Not only did I learn a lot about crew and the sport of rowing, but I gained a detailed understanding of the early 1930s in the Northwest. At the same time, Brown also elucidates the forces at work in pre-War Berlin, especially propaganda efforts.
Rowing is a precise movement. Any small deviation in depth, angle, speed, or duration would lead to what’s called “catching a crab.” The oar becomes stuck in the water, as difficult to retrieve as if an oversized crab was attached and hanging on for dear life. Similarly, melding all these disparate elements into a book is a precise business. For me, there were times when Brown “caught a crab.” The story would get bogged down in so much detail that I’d feel stuck. Other times, the story would just flow like a boat where every oar is moving in perfect symmetry with the others, called “the swing.”
When Brown found his swing, this was a gripping book. I cheered for these young men, and their coaches. I wanted to read late into the night, although sadly, sleep overtook me. I also loved having photographs of both the men and the various locales. Maybe that makes me sound simplistic, but it added a layer of reality that I appreciated. At almost 500 pages, this is an investment of time and attention. But I’d encourage you to ignore the crabs and hang on for the swing. It’s worth it!