Book Review: The Boys In The Boat

“It’s a great art, is rowing. It’s the finest art there is.It’s a symphony of motion. And when you’re rowing well, why it’s nearing perfection. And when you near perfection, you’re touching the Divine. It touches the you of yous. Which is your soul.”

Daniel James Brown, The Boys In The Boat


I have been to one rowing regatta in my life.

The race was during college and UCLA lost to Cal.  Because of the loss and the fact that I had never been part of a crew, little from the event stuck with me. I had neither occasion nor exposure to interest me in rowing.

However, now that I've read Daniel James Brown's book,  The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, I can't imagine not being completely engrossed in a race.

If you've been to fewer races than I have and have even less interest in rowing, this book is still a spectacular read. In fact, I'm already looking for other rowing books (uh oh!).

Brown does a masterful job telling the story and revealing the drama of the crew from the USA who won gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  The "boys" were college kids from the University of Washington, and their path to Hitler's Germany was anything but straight.  All of the stories are fascinating.

In fact, even the set-up is a great story.

Daniel Brown is an author who lives in the Seattle area.  One of Brown's neighbors was caring for her father, Joe Rantz, and was reading him one of Brown's earlier books.  Joe wanted to meet Brown, so the daughter asked if he would come over.  Brown was happy to do so, and in the process met Joe who had been on the 1936 Olympic crew team. From this improbable meeting Brown spent 10 months interviewing Joe Rantz before his death.  Brown then spent years researching and telling the journey of the assorted boys in the boat.

Imagine combining Seabiscuit with Chariots of Fire and throwing in In The Garden of Beasts, and you'll have an idea of what you're in for.  The story is much broader than a sporting book; its lessons are about life, teamwork, and beauty.

Of course, Brown also covers the mechanics of the sport, but he does so with engrossing facts.  Here's a couple of  tidbits about the insane physical demands:

“Rowing is perhaps the toughest of sports. Once the race starts, there are no time-outs, no substitutions. It calls upon the limits of human endurance. The coach must therefore impart the secrets of the special kind of endurance that comes from mind, heart, and body. —George Yeoman Pocock”

To prove his point he backs up the claim above with a stunning fact:

“Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand-meter race—the Olympic standard—takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.”

In the context of story, you will learn a ton about the rigors of rowing, but even more important, you'll learn about intense teamwork.  The ups and downs of this story are inexorably linked to trust and connection with others.  These quotes don't do justice to the depth of the insights, but it's a taste.

“What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crew mates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew.”

“Perhaps the seeds of redemption lay not just in perseverance, hard work, and rugged individualism. Perhaps they lay in something more fundamental—the simple notion of everyone pitching in and pulling together.”

Ultimately, there is a tremendous spiritual element to the book that is both subtle and intense.

“The wood...taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves. About the reasons we were all here.”

The result of the final race for the team isn't a surprise.  You know they are going to win Olympic gold at the start of the book.  However, Brown tells the details of the story and brings it to life in such a way that you will be utterly mesmerized.

Ultimately, the experience shapes these young men in permanent and beautiful ways.

“Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That’s what he gets from rowing.”

Even if you don't ever step in a boat shell, you'll be enriched by knowing this story.  Definitely put this book on your list!