Daniel James Brown tells an exciting and engrossing tale in The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
It’s a page-turner, and that’s quite an accomplishment, given that most readers know little or nothing about rowing when they pick up the book and given that, when all is said and done, the eight-oar crew of students from the University of Washington essentially went undefeated during their four years on the water. (Actually, because of changing boat assignments, it was three of the crew members who were undefeated. But even the other five lost very few races while on other crews.)
Brown does a good job of explaining how a crew does its job, from the use of the oars to the strategy of the coxswain, from the different responsibilities of each of the nine seats to the grueling physical workout that a race entails. In this and many other ways, he brings the reader deep enough into the world of rowing to know what’s at stake in a race and to feel the yearning and commitment of the rowers to triumph.
To humanize his story, he focuses on Joe Rantz, the member of the crew with the most troubled childhood and most cash-strapped circumstances (which is saying something since the story occurs during the Depression). The Washington crew was made up of working-class boys who faced many challenges although none as daunting as Rantz.
Published in 2013, The Boys in the Boat is a gripping work of non-fiction that has won a wide readership.
Why am I irritated?
So why was I so irritated throughout much of my reading of the book?
The Boys in the Boat works so well in many ways that it seems almost ungentlemanly to complain. Yet, the fact remains that, for me, the book succeeded despite some glaring problems.
In no particular order, here are the elements of the book that irritated me:
The false Nazi contrast
Like a number of other recent books, The Boys in the Boat employ Hitler and the Nazis as a counterpoint to something wholesome and, often, American — in this case, the fresh, brash, optimistic American boys in the Washington crew.
Yes, the 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, and, yes, Hitler did attend, and, yes, Germany used the games as a propaganda tool to present a more civilized face to the rest of the world and distract from their anti-Semitic and other oppressive actions.
But these nine guys had nothing to do with Hitler and the Nazis, not really. They went to Berlin to compete, and they didn’t have time to have much of a sense of all that evil stuff that was going on behind the scenes.
Putting sections of the text about Hitler and the Nazis in between sections about the crew and its experiences presents, I argue, a false contrast.
Or, maybe better put: A few mentions of Hitler and the Nazis would have been enough to make the point that these kids were on the water in Berlin for the purity of sport, and the Nazis had their very dark agenda. However, Brown goes on and on about what the Nazis were doing. It was overdone and overwritten.
Also overdone and overwritten were the many sections of the text about what was going on in America during the years the Washington crew was racing. There are endless pages about the Dust Bowl and the impact of the Depression on the lives of Americans and about unusual weather.
As with Hitler, Brown might have made passing references to these things, but he goes on and on. It is as if he felt his book didn’t have enough of a story, and he was trying to pad it thicker. Indeed, Brown seems to never have found a noun that he thought couldn’t be improved by slapping an adjective in front of it.
That, to me, is the unfortunate aspect of this. Brown had a great story to tell, and he distracts the reader from that story with all this additional and unnecessary verbiage.
Deadening the story of Joe Rantz
A lot of space is devoted to describing the life that Joe Rantz had lived before joining the crew and then as he was racing — so much so that it deadens rather than enlivens his story.
Joe’s childhood and teenage years are described in great detail, as well as his relationship with Joyce Simdars who became his wife. Yet, there are virtually no quotes from Joe or Joyce. Instead, it is all told in Brown’s words.
Brown mentions in an Author’s Note that his information on those years came from Joe whom he interviewed at length during the months before his death and from the couple’s daughter Judy. In fact, it seems that most of what Brown learned came from Judy who was reporting the stories that Joe and Joyce had told many times throughout their long lives.
It’s hard to know with more certainty since Brown’s endnotes are light on detail. In a paragraph at the top of those notes, he says an exhaustive set of more than a thousand notes is available at his website, but, five years after the book was published, those thousand notes still haven’t been posted there.
The young man’s psyche
In telling Joe’s story, Brown works mightily to probe the young man’s psyche. He presents Joe as a guy who, having been abandoned in various ways in his childhood, can’t trust people. But, then, in the experience with the crew, he learns to trust, and the climax of this change comes when he and the other guys win the Gold Medal at the Olympics.
Brown may be onto something, but his presentation is so ham-handed that I, for one, was turned off by it. It seemed simultaneously that he was stretching too far and not far enough.
He was stretching too far by making these broad-brush simplistic diagnoses of Joe when he couldn’t — or, at least, doesn’t — back it up on the page.
He was not stretching far enough because he doesn’t offer any quotes from Joe about how he had had this abandonment feeling but, then, with the crew, he found he could trust.
Maybe Brown had those quotes and chose not to use them. As it is, it seems that Brown is making the analysis himself on what he thinks must have happened.
Brown has a great story here that he tells in 370 pages.
But this is a book that is hurt by its excesses, in the telling of history and in the examination of the psyche of Joe Rantz.
The Boys in the Boat could have been a much better book, I think, at, say, 250 pages. Or whatever was needed to tell the story, pure and simple.
Patrick T. Reardon