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Boys in the Boat

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

JoAnn Heron

If you haven’t read this book yet, get ready for a good row. Truly, you will feel like you are in the boat with these nine young men who won the 1936 Olympics against the greatest of odds; you will urge them on to their David vs. Goliath victory in front of Hitler. You will learn a lot about racing strategy and strength, hard work and training. You will become a better rower because of this book, because you will have heroes, whom you will feel compelled to emulate. The team had various word signals like MIB (Mind in Boat). I find myself chanting that often. I sit up straighter. The “swing” that we talk about was more than backs moving together. For these young men, it was when they and the boat became one with the water. I think about that as I strive to move with my crewmates. I have a new respect for wooden boats and understand the reverence for a “Pocock” shell.

This book has everything. Rowing is just that special icing on the cake that we rowers have the ability to taste. But, even if you knew nothing about rowing, it would be a great book. It is a primer in Northwest politics and living conditions of the Great Depression and the following New Deal. You will know the settings: the Sequim farmlands, the University of Washington boathouse, North Seattle neighborhoods, Grand Coulee Dam and the Olympic Peninsula woods. It is a drama about competing coaches and universities, and about the triumph of poor young men over adversity and well-heeled, pampered rowers from the East Coast and Europe. It is a brush up on pre-World War II politics and the propaganda machine that showed a shining face as Hitler began his onslaught on Jews that sent millions to their deaths. It is also a tender love story.

Brown’s book is incredibly well researched, but the most fascinating to me were his interviews with one of the two last surviving team members, Joe Rantz (Joe passed away on September 10, 2007). Daniel stumbled into the story when his neighbor Judy came to him one day and asked him to talk to her dad, Joe Rantz. Roger Morris, Joe’s dear friend and last survivor died on July 22, 2009. Reading the book was like sitting in their living room, hanging on every word, or reading first-hand accounts from the Seattle Times and Post Intelligencer. You felt you were de-briefing with the crew in their locker room, or experiencing the mental anguish as the coaches made the final decision to put these particular young men on the Olympic team.

Daniel James Brown:

It was when [Joe Rantz] tried to talk about ‘the boat’ that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes. At first I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory. Or did he mean his teammates, the improbable assemblage of young men who had pulled off one of rowing’s greatest achievements? Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that ‘the boat’ was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both – it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience – a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it

The book has been a New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. It has also been on the LA Times list, the National IndieBound list, the Seattle Times, the Boston Globe, the Denver Post and a number of others. The Weinstein Company (The King’s Speech, The Butler, Fruitvale Station, etc) has purchased the rights to adapt the book to film. They are currently working with a screenwriter on a script.

Daniel Brown spoke at the Jefferson County Historical Society last year to the delight of rowers and rowing enthusiasts


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