I’d heard plenty of great reviews of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it because I rarely read nonfiction (other than memoirs). My neighborhood book group chose it for our October selection, and I ended up enjoying it very much. Across all members of our group, this book received our highest rating ever!
Although the title and subtitle refer to nine young men who rowed crew for the University of Washington in the 1930’s, the book focuses in particular on one of those “boys”, Joe Rantz. Joe had a difficult childhood, to say the least, and was supporting himself by the time he was just fourteen. By the time he enrolled at UW in 1933, the six-foot-two boy had already worked hard for much of his life and was struggling to pay his own way through college. He tried out for the popular crew team, along with many other boys. Joe had never rowed in his life, but a spot on the respected team would guarantee him a part-time job on campus.
Joe was not entirely unusual among the boys that came down to the lake for try-outs that day and made the freshman team. Most were the sons of farmers, fishermen, and loggers, and in the midst of the Great Depression, almost everyone was struggling to pay the bills. Few of them had experience rowing, so the seasoned and well-respected crew coaches had their work cut out for them. The coaches and the boys both worked hard, and – bit by bit – this freshman team shaped up into something truly amazing. First they had to learn the difficult sport (and art) of rowing as a nine-person perfectly synchronized team, and then, by spring, they had to take on the elite rowing teams of the eastern Ivy League schools, made up of wealthy boys who had grown up rowing crew.
There aren’t really any spoilers here to give away – the subtitle tells you how the story ends! – but as my friend pointed out, it’s amazing how suspenseful the book is to read even though you know how it ends. Chapters alternate between the present – the boys trying out for the team, practicing, and competing – and Joe’s past, starting from his childhood and moving forward gradually to his time at UW. As I said, the book is about the whole UW rowing team(s), but there is a special focus on Joe.
I thought I might get bored reading an entire book about rowing, but that storyline, following one boy from horrible childhood challenges to eventual victory, helped to keep the story interesting and moving quickly. In addition, the UW team was clearly the underdog, both in national competitions and the 1936 Olympics. They faced significant challenges to success, but the boys who made up that historic team were all good at heart and hard-working, which makes you root all the harder for them throughout the book.
It’s a fascinating story, sprinkled through with interesting facts about life in the 1930’s (and earlier), both daily life for regular people, as well as the more historic events taking place, like the Depression and the beginning of the Dust Bowl. Everyone in our book group enjoyed it (a feat in itself!), and many people rated it a 9 or 10 out of 10. This inspirational story of the ragtag rowing team that took the world by storm easily kept the attention of this fiction reader.
370 pages, Viking
NOTE: I started reading this book on my Kindle but eventually switched to a hardcover from the library. The book is illustrated throughout with photographs, both from Joe’s life and of the rowing team, and I kept wanting to go back and look at certain photos, which I find easier to do with a traditional book.