Book Review: The Boys in the Boat
By Alex Holt
Probably the greatest challenge with nonfiction narratives like Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat is to create suspense for an outcome that has already happened and that the reader knows well in advance. We know from the beginning of the book that the University of Washington men’s crew team went on to win gold at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The trick is to get readers to care about the story anyhow — and Brown absolutely scores.
Brown takes a sport many readers know nothing about, rowing, and a team they know even less about and not only makes them easily understandable but also provides historical and cultural context for their popularity. Within the first 100 pages of the book, we’re introduced to the basics of the sport, the rivalry between the University of Washington and the University of California rowing teams, the Dickensian backstory of the book’s main protagonist, Joe Rantz, and Rantz’s freshman season rowing for the Huskies.
Not once does any of it seem forced, not even when Brown digresses from the main story long enough to explain the origins of the propaganda surrounding the 1936 Olympics. Even though Brown makes it pretty clear just how dominant the University of Washington rowing program was from 1935 to 1937, he still imbues a tremendous amount of suspense into every single description of the Huskies’ races. Tension mounts as the team moves closer to the Olympics, culminating in the final heart-stopping race against Germany and Italy in Berlin.
The other thing about Brown’s book — and I’m not sure this is intentional; it’s still a neat coincidence — is that while Brown starts off focusing mostly on Rantz, by the end of the book, without ever making it obvious, he’s shifted the point of view from Rantz to the entire team. This proves a perfect metaphor for one of the central concepts of the book, the idea that rowing in particular is marked by the need for the individual rowers to let go of their egos and row together as one. In the book’s prologue, Brown mentions how Rantz agreed to let him tell the story of the Washington rowing team only if he agreed to make it not about Rantz but about “the boat,” or the team itself. Suffice it to say Brown has done just that.
Alext Holt is a Master’s Student at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism.