Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Boys in the Boat. I Finally Read it. And Am I Glad I Did!

I've been (physically) looking at The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, for a long time now.  It's displayed prominently at Village House of Books.  Every shift, every author event, I see it - usually multiple times.  Not only that, but I have had lots of people tell me how good it is.  So, I finally read it.  And it is some book.  It's easy describe but hard to explain, if that makes any sense.  Everybody by now knows the theme.  It's the story of the University of Washington crew team and its quest for gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Easy, right?  Not so much.  Like most good books, fiction or non-, the climax comes toward the end.  But what about the rest of it?  Let me fill you in a bit and tell you my dilemma.

The story centers on Joe Rantz, who grew up very poor in rural Washington and, oftentimes, family-less.  What he went through as a child reminds me of The Glass Castle - another example of truth being stranger than fiction.  I won't dwell on it except to say that he was told to leave the house at the age of 10 by his father and stepmother!  Isn't that nuts?  What he overcame to even get to U-Dub (University of Washington's nickname), and then to stay there 4 years, is an example of courage, perseverance, intellect, and pure guts.  Like The Glass Castle and even Unbroken, this story will make you shake your head countless times.

Lest you think this is a 1-man story, think again.  We learn a lot about the other 7 oarsmen and the coxswain from his boat, the Husky Clipper, Joe's girlfriend, Joyce, his freshman coach, Tom Bowles, his varsity coach, Al Ulbrickson, the resident boat builder, George Pocock, who dispenses advice to anyone who will listen (and at the beginning of each chapter), and his father, Harry.  And by the end of the book, you absolutely care about each of them.  In fact, when the author gives us a where-are-they-now bio at the end of the book, I was rapt.  They had all taken on a life of someone I cared about. Again, whether we're talking about fiction or non-, it's not that easy for an author to make you care about so many different characters.  But Brown makes that happen.

The story is great.  But for this old history major (Cal, 1972), I loved all of the facts that were thrown in.  I learned that:

1.  The 1st intercollegiate rowing championship, between Harvard and Yale, was in 1952.
2.  Robert McNamara (former secretary of defense and the subject of the excellent documentary, The Fog of War) and Gregory Peck both rowed crew for Cal.
3.  The Washington Crew found out where FDR lived when they were in New York for the nationals and walked right up to the door and knocked.  They were admitted by one of FDR's sons, himself an oarsman, who talked to them for hours.  Can you imagine that happening today?

Those, and many more like them, were fun facts to learn.  But the biggest history lesson centered on Germany and Hitler and everything the regime did to make itself look good for the world to see during the 1936 Olympics.  It's absolutely crazy how they cleaned up the city and countryside, fixed up buildings, got rid of all signs that they were abusing minorities (even though they were), and painted a picture of a docile and welcoming country.  All the while, they were preparing for war and were already in the process of eliminating any and all dissent to the government.  It was hard material to read, at times, but mesmerizing nonetheless.

And I also want you to know that there were many emotional moments for me (I know, a shocker).  If you care about Joe Rantz at all, then you will very much care about the obstacles he faced and the ultimate successes that he achieved.  What an inspirational guy!  But these are not my usual cry-for-the-sake-of-crying tears.  These are actually glad tears because of all Joe and his mates accomplished.  These are group tears, if you will.

So I obviously gave this a 4/4, right?  Not so fast.  Here's the dilemma that I referred to earlier.  There were quite a few moments that were very dry for me.  This is the exact opposite of Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson.  In that one, I loved the scenes with the serial killer (what does this say about me? - don't answer that) and was mildly bored by the descriptions of the building of the World's Fair in Chicago leading up to the event in 1893.  In Boys, I loved all of the rowing scenes and was mildly bored by some of the other parts of the book (but not the part about how Germany prepared for the Olympics - fascinating stuff, that).  The words "ponderous," "dense," and "tome" came to mind at various times.

Was it a fascinating book for the most part?  Yes.  Was it well-written?  Absolutely.  Was it worth the effort?  Undoubtedly.  Do I recommend it?  Highly.  It's still a 3.5/4.  Just be warned that it might drag a  bit.  There were definitely times when I was hoping (praying?) for some dialogue.




  1. I've heard a lot about this one, and it's on my TBR list. I love it when I can be involved in the lives of the characters, but then also learn some history while enjoying a good story.

  2. Then this one is definitely right for you.

  3. I listened to this one and just loved it. It was one of my favorites of the year.

  4. I think I might have given it a 4 instead of a 3.5 if I had listened instead of read it. Either way, it's excellent.