If I say that The Boys in the Boat is like Seabiscuit, only with humans, and on water, I mean no disrespect. How could I? This is one of those heart-warming sagas of effort rewarded and character winning the prize. If the tale of the 1936 American crew team winning the gold medal at the Berlin Olympics is a feel-good story, Daniel James Brown endows it with total legitimacy. You’d have to be a terrible cynic not to be touched by it.
Here’s the premise: in the early 1930s the University of Washington had a pretty good rowing program. On the east coast, crew tended to be the province of prep-school boys but in Seattle, it was a sport for big boys from hardscrabble backgrounds. Brown had the good luck to find, as the focus of his book, a character named Joe Rantz. When he was a child Joe’s family encountered one misfortune after another and eventually the teenage boy was left to fend for himself, which he did with stoicism and resourcefulness. He got himself to the University of Washington and into the boathouse where he met with… well, a new family of sorts.
Look, we know from the start they’re going to win, right? So Brown’s task is to provide the conflicts. Actually, no — life provided the conflicts. The Depression. The Dust Bowl. Can Joe stay in school? Can he afford to eat? Can he learn to row? Can he get along with the other seven rowers and coxswain in his boat? It’s by no means easy. What Brown does particularly well is shift from the micro story of Joe’s progress to the broader narrative of the development of the Washington team. On the broader canvas, there’s the upcoming conflict: can the plucky clean-living Americans beat the Nazi sports machine? And, even more important, Brown brings out the nearly spiritual aspect of rowing, which at its best depends on a sublimation of the individual to the larger unit. What’s more he manages to convey a shadow of what it might be like, to be part of that unit. He doesn’t shy away from the sensory experience: here’s a scene where the boys are rowing on the Hudson river, returning to the boat house from a workout before a big regatta, after sunset:
“But they soon found that they had pulled out ahead without meaning to, just pulling soft and steady…. they realized that they couldn’t hear anything at all except for the gentle murmur of their blades dipping into and out of the water. They were rowing in utter darkness now. They were alone together in a realm of silence and darkness. Years later, as old men, they all remembered the moment…. They were rowing perfectly, fluidly, mindlessly. They were rowing as if on another plane, as if in a black voice among the stars,… and it was beautiful.”
The Boys in the Boat has apparently been a big word-of-mouth success, and I can see why. This is the story that we, as Americans, want to hear about ourselves: that we’re plucky and decent and dig deep when it matters, and that these qualities will bring us the big prizes. When that much-loved story is told as well as this, there’s no reason not to enjoy it.