Book Review: The Boys in the Boat

boys-in-boat_bigI was late getting around to reading The Boys in the Boat, and now I’m late writing my #Mondayblog about it. There’s a reason for my tardiness: I suspected the book would raise a difficult question for me. And it did.

My initial question, when Everyone (and I mean Everyone, including my husband) said I should read this historical narrative nonfiction, was why I would care about this story. Nine college-aged boys from eighty years ago? A sport I couldn’t care less about? Yet another take on the years leading up to World War II? And seriously? A book about a boat?

But as a card-carrying conflict-avoider, I decided I’d better read the book just so I could stop the onslaught of well-meaning readers who insisted that I should.

As I expected, they were right. This is a wonderful story, and I use the word wonderful intentionally–more on that later.

The Boys in the Boat is a story about humanity in its many forms, with its many flaws, and, even more specifically, it’s the consummate underdog story:

  • Joe Rantz, the chosen hero for author Daniel James Brown’s version of what happened, came from such a dysfunctional family that his father and step-mother abandoned him when he was just a teen, and he had to completely fend for himself. He found a way not only to survive but also to get into the University of Washington and make it onto the freshman crew team. Joe was the perfect character for a rise-above-all-obstacles tale.
  • Many of the other boys on the boat also came from less than ideal backgrounds–this was the Great Depression, after all–which meant the entire team was a poor bet when compared to the competition at elite schools like Cal, Stanford, and Penn.
  • Seattle, during the 1930’s, was a city no one really cared about. It was a base for lumber and maritime activities, but as far as the rest of the country was concerned, it wasn’t good for much else.
  • Even the USA had an underdog role in this book. In rowing, it was like a little brother tagging along behind its big brother, Great Britain, at global events. And at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, it was overwhelmed by swastikas and corruption–two obstacles that even a powerhouse like America would need to surmount.

Although this was nonfiction, The Boys in the Boat fits the classic model of literary fiction with its hero, a few antagonists, a little romance, a host of obstacles that create a story arc in the shape of an inverted checkmark with rising tension, and ultimately a Hollywood-worthy and ultimately satisfying climax. Speaking of which, I have heard that The Weinstein Company has picked up the movie rights and Kenneth Branagh will be the director.

thNow here’s why I call it wonderful. If this story had been made into a movie a few decades ago, Jimmy Stewart would have undoubtedly been cast as Joe Rantz, and Donna Reed would have been his faithful girlfriend Joyce. Basically, it would have been It’s a Wonderful Life: Redux. But this is where my big question comes in. What do I do with this story? What do I take away from it? It’s a Wonderful Life, back in its prime, offered that warm and fuzzy message that most people have good hearts. But it’s a movie that feels sadly implausible in today’s world, and so does this book. If this rowing story took place in contemporary times, Joe would have likely wound up either on the street or in foster care when his family abandoned him, and he probably wouldn’t have gone out and found highly physical jobs just to put food in his mouth; instead you’d have found him sitting around playing video games. In this day and age, he probably wouldn’t get into UW given his unfortunate upbringing. And even if he had, making the freshman crew team would have been a long shot for sure, given he hadn’t been rowing since he was a toddler. Sorry, today’s Olympians don’t wait until college to learn their chosen sport.


Do the boys on today’s teams sing along with one another on bus rides? Do their chaste girlfriends faithfully look out for their boyfriends’ widowed fathers and motherless half-siblings and sell peanuts at the river’s edge? Do today’s athletes drink milk instead of swallowing enhancement drugs? We live in such a different world now that I’m not sure today’s Joe Rantzes would have the same chance of success that he did back in the 1930’s. I’m not saying it was easy for him; he was definitely fighting an uphill battle the whole way. It’s just that times are different.

So that leaves me with this question about what to do with The Boys in the Boat. How do I process this true-life fairy tale in today’s competitive, complicated world? What would our current college athletes think about this story? Is there a lesson in this book for us today?

George Yeoman Pocock built the boat. He also offered magnificent guidance to Joe and the rest of the team. One of his inspirational quotes was this:

“The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment, but that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend. So is life: the very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them.”

Maybe I’ve been examining the book too closely in trying to figure out what to do with it. Maybe I need to step back and look at it from a greater distance to understand its message. Maybe, if I do, I’ll see wisdoms like that one from Mr. Pocock and I’ll understand how the 1936 rowing story fits into the same puzzle of Life that I’m working on eighty years later.

Like I said, trying to make sense of it all is difficult. So for now, I think I’ll put the book on my shelf, next to my DVD of It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ll call it the feel-good shelf. Oh, and I think I’ll also join the Everyone Club and spread the word: The Boys in the Boat is definitely a must-read.



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