Monday, April 7, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

I had spring break off from work and spent a good deal of it in the car, so I packed several books, thinking I would finally get some reading done. However, I ended up sleeping a lot. Plus, we drove through some really pretty country and I spent more time than I should have just staring out the window. I wasn’t in the mood to read, which is bizarre. I did manage to finish one book, the book we chose for our next historical fiction/history book club meeting.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown is one of those inspiring against-all-odds sports epics that make for such feel-good reads. It is primarily the story of Joe Rantz, who was a dirt-poor University of Washington student struggling to stay in school during the depression era. Although there were no scholarships available for rowing, Joe felt that earning a place on the crew team would solidify his position at the school. The book follows him from freshman tryouts through the Berlin Olympics, but it also flashes back to his childhood and the struggles that made him the resilient young man he became.

The story is wonderfully descriptive about rowing and teaches an appreciation for the sport. It also does a nice job fleshing out the head coach as well as the boat builder who serves as an additional coach/mentor to Joe.

Interspersed with the narrative of Joe’s years of college is the build-up to the Olympics in Germany, along with the increasing Nazi threat and the world’s reaction (or non-reaction) to it.

The author is able to maintain tension throughout the book despite the fact that the ending to each of the narratives is not really in doubt. The writing is straightforward, and although somewhat repetitive at times, the book moves along at a good pace. It’s easy to root for these likeable characters. This is really Joe’s story with comparatively little information about his teammates. I would have liked to see the other boys in the boat get a little more attention. They were all potentially interesting men. Still, there was quite a bit of information to cover as it was, so it would have been difficult to include more biographical information on eight more people.

The book is being compared to Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and I can see why, although certainly what Zamperini went through was orders of magnitude greater. Still, there is always something stirring about a come-from-behind sports story, especially when there is a villain to beat.


  1. This sounds like the perfect book for me to read to increase my non-fiction stats. I always need a strong narrative, and if it's a triumph of the human spirit kind of story, even better. Thanks for the review!

  2. I'm not particularly a fan of non-fiction, but this one seems like one I should pick up. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.