‘The Boys in the Boat’ by Daniel James Brown
As far as I can make out, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is a Very Popular Book. Over the past six months or so, it feels like it has shown up on practically every bestseller and recommended reading list, from Real Simple to the New York Times to IndieBound to my best friend’s mother-in-law’s book group. It’s everywhere. Given that the book came out last year, I’m not sure what to blame for this recent surge in interest, but I do know that it engulfed my own Nantucket book club, too.
For those of you living under a rock, The Boys in the Boat tells the tale of the nine improbable young men who rowed for the US Olympic team at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and (spoiler alert?) trounced the Nazi team (and everyone else) to win the gold.
This is a plenty interesting story, but author Daniel James Brown also made the very good call to keep the book firmly grounded with broader context. Thus, in among the directly-relevant topics like biographical information on the nine “boys” and their coaches, history of competitive rowing in the United States, and technical explanations of rowing as a sport, Brown also intersperses tales of the Great Depression, the rise of the Nazi party (and its associated depravities), and the great East/West cultural competition. Rather than distracting from the boys’ story, these asides actually strengthen it substantially. Knowing more about all the odds the boys defied makes their accomplishments, even the small ones, all the more incredible.
My main gripe with the book was mainly stylistic—Brown is a rather purple writer and sentimentality often takes over. It’s a very emotional story to begin with and Brown often chooses to overplay the drama into Lifetime special territory.
I also found the pacing to be a bit off, although I’m not sure this was avoidable. Brown picks up the story three years before the 1936 Olympics when most of the eventual Olympic crew were freshmen at the University of Washington. The next three-quarters of the book is about getting to Germany, with a very short section at the end focused on the Olympics themselves. After all the build-up, it’s a bit jarring to have it all over so soon. But perhaps this feeling was fostered by Brown intentionally, as it was presumably exactly how the boys in the boat felt after that race.
That all said, The Boys in the Boat was still an entertaining and vibrant book—more so than most nonfiction, which probably explains its widespread popularity. The races are exhilarating, even on the page, and the story itself is one of those plucky, improbable, and hugely enjoyable ones that freckle American history.
I also feel compelled to mention and particularly praise Brown’s discussion of Nazi Germany. As someone with Jewish heritage, I often find it very difficult to read books pertaining to World War II—everything still feels too fresh and raw, even decades and generations later. But The Boys in the Boat somehow managed to make the Nazis’ evil both more accessible and still terribly damning. Perhaps the book was able to do this because these acts were provided as short vignettes of context in a story more broadly about rowing. But, whatever the reason, Brown deserves commendation for his treatment of such a complicated and challenging historic moment. Given the topic that occupies that majority of the book (collegiate rowing in the United States), Brown could have easily avoided discussing Nazis at length, but he didn’t shy away.
Boys in the Boat has already been recommended by everyone, so I won’t press, but if you’re looking for a light, sporty read or are hankering for a bit of nonfiction, pick this one. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but it was good. Also, I can’t help but recommend Ben Macintyre if you’re looking for some further WWII-related reading, although he ditches the sports in favor of equally improbable (and equally entertaining) espionage. To the library!