The Boys in The Boat by Daniel James Brown

When I was only about fifty pages into this book, I already knew I was holding something spectacular in my hands. I set the book down, searched for Daniel Brown’s site on my mini iPad, and did something I can’t remember doing before. I emailed the author a quick note about how impressed I was with his book.

Viking Press sent me a copy of The Boys in The Boat to review in my book blog, Dolce Bellezza. I am not finished with your book yet, but I had to put it down to email you about how incredible I think your book is. Rowing, as a topic, interested me not at all, and yet I am riveted to every page. Your writing is exquisite, and the story you tell of courage, determination, perseverance and teamwork is everything I believe necessary for a good life. I will write a review next week, but for now I want to say thank you for such a marvelous book. It moves me more than I can say.

The next morning, he had emailed me back with these words:

Hi Bellezza,

So glad that you are enjoying The Boys in the Boat. I, too, had no particular interest in rowing before starting the project. The human interest element of the story was so compelling to me, though, that I dove right in and actually have become quite a fan of the sport.  In the end, though, as you say, and as I say at all my book talks, it’s really a story about the human heart more than about rowing.

Thanks in advance for the review….

And all best wishes.


The Boys in The Boat is a story of nine men on the University of Washington’s rowing team who went to the 1936 Olympics. It’s a story of the Depression years, the Dust Bowl, and the hard times similar to many communities today. It’s the story of Hitler and the perverse ideology with which he prevailed while leading Germany. It’s a story of George Pocock who built the rowing shells with extreme skill and care, the story of Al Ulbrickson the quiet but determined coach, and the boys whom he taught to become excellent rowers. The boys themselves are so inspiring, for rather than finding themselves defeated by their circumstances, they willed themselves to move beyond what could have been crippling discouragement.
“The boys in the Clipper had been winnowed down by punishing competition, and in the winnowing a kind of common character had issued forth: they were all skilled, they were all tough, they were all fircely determined, but they were all good-hearted. Every one of them had come from humble origins or been humbled by the ravages of the hard times in which they had grown up. Each in his own way, they had all learned that nothing could be taken for granted in life, that for all their strength and good looks and youth, forces were at work in the world that were greater than they. The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility – the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole – and humility was the common gateway through which they were able now to come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before. ” (p. 241)
More than anything, to me, this is the story of Joe Rantz, a boy of incredible courage and tenacity, a boy who became so real I wanted to be his friend. His mother died when he was quite young; his step-mother failed to either appreciate or understand him. He was abandoned by his family when he was fifteen years old, and yet overcame such adversity that he made the U.S. Olympic team in 1936.
“Immediately after the race, even as he sat gasping for air in the Husky Clipper while it drifted down the Langer See beyond the finish line, an expansive sense of calm had enveloped him. In the last desperate few hundred meters of the race, in the searing pain and bewildering noise of that final furious sprint, there had come a singular moment when Joe realized with startling clairy that there was nothing more he could do to wint the race, beyond what he was already doing. Except for one thing. He could finally abandon all doubt, trust absolutely without reservation that he and the boy in front of him and the boys behind him would all do precisely what they needed to do at precisely the instant they needed to do it. He had known in that instant that there could be no hesitation, no shred of indecision. He had had no choice but to throw himself into each stroke as if he were throwing himself off of a cliff into the void, with unquestioned faith that the others would be there to save him from catching the whole weight of the shell on his blade. And he had done it. Over and over, forty-four times per minute, he had hurled himself blindly into his future, not just believing but knowing that the other boys would be there for him, all of them, moment by precious moment.” (p. 355)
Surely that may be why instead of calling his book something like The Eight-Oared Race, Daniel Brown entitled it The Boys In the Boat. It is the best book I have read all summer, a book I recommend with all my heart. It is inspiration, it is character, and it is victory over every kind of enemy that rears its ugly head in our faces.
Viking Press has offered a copy of this book to one U.S. reader. Please leave a comment to be considered for the give-away.

32 thoughts on “The Boys in The Boat by Daniel James Brown”

  1. I listened to this on audio and loved it too. I'll be posting my review tomorrow and in it I say reading that book made me understand why Tom Brokaw calls that generation the “greatest generation.” This book moved me like no other book has done in a while.


  2. I think connecting these men to the greatest generation is spot on. I kept on thinking of my father as I read this book, as he too epitomizes courage and determination in the face of adversity.


  3. Becky, it is just exactly what you and I hold up as some of the highest values in life: working hard and being determined to succeed, being honorable to one's family regardless of their treatment to you, and sticking closer to your friends than a brother. Well, I don't mean abandon your brother, just a way of saying how powerful teamwork can be.


  4. Thank you for the review. One more book I have to read.

    It reminds me of an old book by David Halberstam, The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal. Also about rowing (1984 Olympics), well written, and inspiring.


  5. Thanks, Edgar, for informing me of the book you were reminded of. I feel like embarking on a whole water themed reading adventure; the one you mentioned, Moby Dick, and other wonderful ambitious books about ambitious men.


  6. I was SO CLOSE to picking this up when I was on Block Island last week and somehow found myself without a book (I know, aghast I was!) But I picked up The Orphan Master's Son because it is a next book club pick. I will get to this one, though, I'm sure – based on so many positive reviews.


  7. Don't consider me for winning this. I already read the ARC. Here's what I thought.

    Although its subtitle implies that THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is about the American eight-oar rowing crew in the 1936 Olympics, the book is more than that. It's mostly about what led to the formation of the crew. Also, the story is made personal by its concentration on one of the boys, Joe Rantz.

    If THE BOYS IN THE BOAT was fiction, I wouldn't have enjoyed it. That's because the whole thing is so unlikely: Joe overcame such odds in his personal life. None of the boys came from money when they suddenly emerged from Seattle, a city few were familiar with then, to beat the prestigious Eastern schools (e.g., Yale and Harvard). The boat and the boys dealt with several disadvantages in Germany, both before and during their races, only to beat their competition. None of this story would be believable if I didn't know it was true.

    Throughout this book, juxtaposed against Joe's and the boys' story is Hitler's creation of the fictional Germany that he wanted to present to the world during the Olympics there. As he hides the real Germany, the US ignores him, and the boys and other athletes just work on getting there.

    When the story was over, I didn't want it to be over. So I read the endnotes. You'll probably do that, too.


  8. The last time I was near Block Island my husband had taken me, and I had such a toothache we went to the ER instead. so at least you fared better than I! I hope you do get a chance to read this book, Care, because it is that wonderful.


  9. I think I'll suggest it to my book club, too, Colleen. The women in this particular group have been born in the 30's, most of them, and I think they would find it particularly meaningful. However, that doesn't mean that any group wouldn't love discussing it. There's much to talk about in this fine work, from the Depression to motivation to overcoming life's adversities.


  10. I know! I was thrilled to find Daniel's reply in my inbox the next morning. I guess I foolishly forget that author's are real people, too, as so often they're behind the scenes of their books. That's a silly mistake to make on my part.


  11. It's ture; there's almost an unbelievable quality to this book as one wonders how the team itself, and the boys independently, were able to be so strong.

    I didn't want it to end, either, and I thought it was so wonderful that Daniel was able to interview Joe Rantz himself, before he died, and his daughter. It makes the book that much more powerful to have their firsthand accounts.


  12. Beth, with your involvement in book blogger's blogs, and Daniel's response to my email, I have now seen firsthand how authors are indeed involved in their books. Not all have been so 'forward' and it's really exciting to talk with you in real life (even if it's on a screen). Thank you for taking the time to participate in the blogger world.


  13. Very cool, Bellezza! I've seen mention of this book all over the place but just from the logline I had no interest in it at all. Now, I want to read it. I'll bet the author loves you. 😉


  14. Elizabeth, you're so welcome. Apparently this book has made it's debut long before I arrived 😉 but I'm glad for any further viewpoints I can provide.


  15. oh toothaches! I have one right now, how odd you mention yours… I am dreading going back (had a crown put on last week and it doesn't feel right.)

    But THIS BOOK! what a better book to think upon than the scary one you just posted about.


  16. Nice review. When I received an unrequested audio copy of this I didn't think I'd be interested in reading about Olympic Rowing. I have read so many positive comments now and realize that it's more about the people than the sport, so I've moved the book up near the top of the stack.


  17. Great observation! In my review, I said that reading this book made me realize how coddled and “soft” many kids are today compared with these guys. Like you, Brown managed to fascinate me with a sport that I had absolute zero interest in – which is my barometer for a truly great writer. The best nonfiction book I've read all year and best sports book I've read in the past few years.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s