The Boys in the Boat
By Daniel James Brown
Penguin Books, Paperback, 9780143125471, May 2014, 404pp.
The Short of It:
Nine young men from the University Washington’s rowing team go up against all odds to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The Rest of It:
A member from my book club said it best.
It’s not a story about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but the journey these young men took to get there.
Most of the book centers around Joe Rantz. As it turns out, his daughter lived next door to the author and approached him about documenting her father’s story. After sitting down with him, it was obvious to Brown that Joe’s story had to be told.
Joe came from a humble home. His mother died when he was fairly young. His father remarried a very young woman. A woman who did not take a liking to Joe. Probably because he was a constant reminder of his father’s first wife. Needless to say, the father packs up his bride and Joe’s other siblings and eventually leaves Joe to fend for himself.
As a child, Joe realized that in order to survive, he’d have to live off the land. He had shelter but food was something he never had enough of. When he got old enough to work and go to college, he found himself at the University of Washington’s shell house and decided to go out for the rowing team.
There, he met some notable people. Al Ulbrickson, his relentless coach and George Pocock, who designed the racing shells that Joe spent so much time in. Together, these two men had quite an impact on Joe. He already possessed a good work ethic, but the respect that he had for these two men was evident and it touched everything he did.
Much of the story is how they got to the Olympics and what they had to overcome to get there. There were financial struggles for most of the boys. They didn’t have the money that their East Coast counterparts had. They battled illness, too. Almost to the point of death. The logistics of who could be in the boat and where, was a constant challenge for the coaches. They would re-position the boys daily in an attempt to find the perfect combination. It was grueling and it kept all of the boys on their toes, knowing that they could get cut at anytime.
The author did an excellent job of introducing the terminology without being too technical. I had no trouble following along. Although I did want to know more about the Berlin Olympics, the author does not spend much time on that subject. You should know this up front.
That said, I really enjoyed it. The members of my book club seemed to enjoy it too. There is plenty to talk about between the sport itself, the coaching style, the personal lives of these young men and what was going on in the world at the time. I don’t read much non-fiction but this one was a nice surprise.
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16 thoughts on “Review: The Boys in the Boat”
I don’t quite know why but I do not want to read this book. I tried it on audio but couldn’t take the narrator and it felt so similar to Unbroken that I gave up on it. Plenty of other books out there so I will let it go. Hopefully my book clubs won’t suggest it.
I liked it better than Unbroken. It’s a totally different book.
I listened to this book a year or two ago and loved it. I swear, people were tougher back then.
People had to be tougher back then. So much was going on. Most people had a good work ethic too. Not something you see much of now. Sadly.
My spouse was assigned either this book or “All the Light We Cannot See” I read them both. We all know about Jesse Owens in 1936, but this was completely new info for me. It read almost like fiction! Fascinating character development by all those boys…I really loved it
Interesting! I love books that create tons of talk and chatter!
You know me. I am not a reader of non-fiction but I did enjoy this one.
You always surprise me with your book choices, Ti – and in the best possible way. I admire the fact that you don’t get swept by trends and “the latest thing” and that you read so widely across genres. I’d love to be more like you (working on it…)
This sounds like a great story. It’s too bad that Berlin is only glanced at, but from what I gather, the trip is plenty fascinating on its own. I’d love to read this too 🙂
I’ll admit, I DID want to learn more about Berlin. When he talked about Hitler’s presence at the Olympics I was riveted but there are only small, small mentions of the event, really. Besides the race itself.
I get all excited about trendy reads but in reality and with my schedule, I often don’t get to them right when they come out. I do like to mix it up a bit. Book club helps with that too. This happened to be my pick! A stretch for me. I almost always pitch fiction.
Hmm, this would have disappointed me because of the lack of Berlin Olympics stuff.
I’ve heard lots of rave reviews about this one, but for some reason, it just doesn’t seem to appeal to me?
This went over well with my book club, too. I really liked the audio version… never expected a book about rowing to be so exciting!
I’ve been staying away from this book for a long time because I wasn’t a fan of rowing. But that note by the member of your book club makes me want to read it now. Going off to get it on audible.
NONE of us were fans of rowing and many of us do not follow sports at all so for everyone to enjoy it, that’s saying a lot. I bet it will be exciting to listen to with all of the race action going on.
The 1936 Olympics was Hitler’s bragging opportunity. Was any of these young men Jewish or non-White? That might be a real meaningful strife for them to not only train for the Games but overcome discrimination.
Glad you told me it doesn’t have much of the Berlin Olympics in it. Hmm. So I will temper my expectations whenever I read it.