Monday, June 2, 2014

The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics


Daniel James Brown

Category: Nonfiction: Biography; Sports

Synopsis: A biography of America’s 1936 Olympic-winning rowing team.

Date finished: 4 May 2014

Rating: *****

I saved this one for a while, as I do with all books I expect to love. It was worth the wait.

Oddly, I feel like I have very little to say about the book. And what I do want to share seems mostly negative, odd for a book I liked a great deal. The writing is very good. It’s serviceable, straightforward, not affected in anyway, and definitely not boring. Rowing isn’t exactly an easy sport to describe, but Brown did so in a way that I got a pretty good idea of what’s involved (i.e., every muscle group and a whole lot of mental fortitude) and of the endurance and determination required to race crew. I’m not a sports enthusiast, but I can appreciate a sport like rowing that requires skill, physical stamina, and mental acuity.

But there is a niggling dissatisfaction about this book that stays with me. Maybe this is due to my own expectations. I had expected, after all of Brown’s discussion of the vital importance of teamwork in a sport like rowing, not to mention that they were an Olympic team, that the team would be the focus of the book. I was 200 pages in before it dawned on me that I’d only met one rower, and only a couple of the other teammates in passing. The book focuses almost exclusively on one rower, Joe Rantz, his difficult family life, and the importance of rowing to his getting a Depression-era education. This was disappointing.

Since I didn’t feel like I knew the team, I didn’t feel nearly as invested in the Olympic race as I could have been. I think this was a glaring missed opportunity on Brown’s part.

I also think the first half of the book dragged a bit. It was interesting, but I think it could have been edited down to make space for the rest of the crew.

But the book had heart. And the book taught me about a sport I knew nothing about, had never even seen performed. I also learned about the shell (boat) itself, and how it was made. That was fascinating. Also, the writing of the race scenes was impressive. The pacing was breathless, and you really felt like you were in the boat. Brown also did an exceptional job setting this crew against the background of the time period, especially the Depression and Hitler’s rise to power.

So, in all, I was satisfied enough with the book, but I still nurse a bit of disappointment over what could have been. Then again, this read came just a couple months after Laura Hillenbrand’s masterful Seabiscuit, who, although a racehorse, had a surprising amount in common with these boys of the same era. It sounds like an odd comparison, but my mind made it nonetheless.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

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  1. hmm...I have this on my Kindle, but I haven't started it yet. I was assuming it focused on the team as a whole as well. I'm glad to find out otherwise before starting!

    1. I hope knowing that doesn't discourage you. The book's definitely worth your time.

      Brown does say in the intro that it's Joe's story, but I thought it would be Joe's story in the context of the team's story. Guess I should have taken him at his word! :)

      Please let me know what you think when you finish it.

  2. It definitely sounds like Brown could have done more with the team aspect on it - I've read a few books where I felt that the author had missed the opportunity to do so much more than they did. Regardless, I'm glad it was enjoyable!