Blogging from A-Z: Book review – ‘The Boys in the Boat’

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “B.” (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the A-Z page here.)



Confession: I haven’t quite finished the book.

But I’ve finished enough to know that I can recommend, without hesitation, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

An author friend of mine, when I told him I was reading Unbroken (the story of 1936 Olympic runner and World War II veteran Louis Zamperini – read my review here), recommended The Boys in the Boat as my next read. Conrad specifically urged me to listen to the version because of the wonderful narration by Edward Herrmann (God rest his soul).

I typically don’t listen to audio when I run outdoors, but lucky for me I was stuck with the treadmill for several weeks because of icy weather and short, dark days. 🙂

BoysInTheBoat_coverThis book, and Herrmann’s lovely, fluid reading of it, proves that nonfiction doesn’t have to be dry and boring. A good tale, well told, is like poetry, or music, and this one has been an exciting melodic discovery for me.

While I plod along on the ’mill with the book turned up loud, the minutes sail by. I can practically hear the swish-swoosh-swish of the water as the University of Washington crews practice their craft (and art, and mental game) in hopes of beating their University of California archrivals in the next regatta, or making it to the 1936 Olympics.

I can almost hear the voice of Englishman George Yeoman Pocock, who designed and built the boats our boys rowed in, as he explains to farm boy Joe Rantz how a racing shell takes shape. It’s obvious Pocock had a love affair with his boats, and the materials that went into making them:

“As Pocock talked, Joe grew mesmerized. It wasn’t just what the Englishman was saying, or the soft, earthy cadence of his voice, but the calm reverence with which he talked about the wood – as if there was something holy and sacred about it – that drew Joe in.

“ ‘The wood,’ Pocock murmured, ‘taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity. But it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place: something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves, about the reasons we were all here.

“ ‘Sure, I can make a boat,’ he said, and then added, quoting the poet Joyce Kilmer, ‘but only God can make a tree.’ ”

Pocock wasn’t the only poet-at-heart. Brown, the book’s author, seems to have taken the topic of rowing and made a master’s thesis out of it, but not the kind that puts you to sleep (unless the thesis is a lullaby). Maybe Brown grew up with the sport; maybe not. However he came to possess the information, he’s an expert on his subject matter, and he makes it come alive, with beautiful and rich description.

We know the boys made it to the Berlin Olympics. We know the things Hitler did as he grew in power. We know who won medals in 1936 and who didn’t. That information is all in the history books.

But when you know the outcome of an event and you’re nevertheless breathless at the telling of it – can’t wait until tomorrow night when you get to read the next installment – well, that’s good storytelling, folks.

You can Google or Wiki the tale of these working-class “boys in the boat” – find out which of them made the team and whether they brought home Olympic gold – but save the cold, hard facts for after Brown has introduced you to his Boys in the Boat.

It’s worth its weight in gold.


Tomorrow: C is for “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” my review of another great book.

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7 thoughts on “Blogging from A-Z: Book review – ‘The Boys in the Boat’

  • Thursday, April 2, 2015 at 4:34 am

    Little known fact (although you may know if, of course!), Hugh Laurie – as in Dr Gregory House in “House” – once rowed for Cambridge in the Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race. That’s quite a big thing here in England, although other parts of the world may well wonder what all the fuss is about. Anyway, some Brits are pretty good at rowing. It’s one of the few things we ever get a medal for in the Olympic Games! Personally, as soon as I set foot on any kind of boat, big or small, I feel sick. Not good for someone who lives on an island! Love your blog, by the way.

  • Thursday, April 2, 2015 at 6:40 am

    No, I didn’t know that. I love Hugh Laurie! (Except I got really tired of Dr. House’s antics and had to stop watching him. 🙂 )

    The Brits are mentioned more than once in “The Boys in the Boat” and, in fact, the Oxford vs. Cambridge race may have been included. Congrats on the Olympic medals!

    A few weeks ago, a blogger friend of mine (whom I “met” through another blogging challenge) met Olympian Steve Williams and was inspired by his speech. You can read about that experience here:

    Thanks for stopping by the blog, That’s Purrfect, and for posting a comment. Can’t wait to visit your blog and see if perhaps the Purrfect refers to … cats?

    Have a fantastic day!

  • Thursday, April 2, 2015 at 9:19 am

    Great book recommendation, and I have recently found out that listening to an audio book while on the treadmill makes the time pass faster!

    Jeff Beesler
    Jeffrey Beesler’s World of the Scribe
    #830, (WR)

  • Friday, April 3, 2015 at 6:41 am

    Definitely helps on the treadmill, and we’ve been having nasty thunderstorms this week, so …

    Jeff, thanks for stopping by again today (um, yesterday). I am headed to your blog now. 🙂

  • Saturday, May 16, 2015 at 10:41 am

    As an extending piece of trivia related to Hugh Laurie, if you check out page 323 you will note that the stroke of that British crew, Ran Laurie, was Hugh Laurie’s father.

  • Saturday, May 16, 2015 at 11:07 am

    Judy, confession time: I still hadn’t finished the book when it came time to write the review, but I did hear in one of the later chapters (on my Audible version) the reference to Ran Laurie and the fact that he was Hugh’s father. I thought to myself, “Oh, yes. Someone mentioned that on my blog!”

    As for you, the name Rantz … care to share your own story?

  • Saturday, May 16, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Here is Judy’s follow-up comment, which she sent to my email but gave me permission to post here. Doesn’t it make you want to hear the rest of the story? 🙂

    My maiden name is Rantz, and Joe Rantz was my father. You probably noticed the “Judy” Dan referred to both in the Prologue and in the Acknowledgements. That’s me. I brought Dan and my dad together in 2007 and I stuck with him (Dan) throughout the multi-year process of “birthing” the Book. I was research assistant, development consultant, initial editor of everything he wrote and general Muse. We have had a long and amazing journey with this book — and it still goes on.

    I will have to say that I am rather OCD about following reviews. I frequent Amazon daily, Goodreads 2 or 3 times a week and search Google for blogs and news releases about once a week. It helps me keep my finger on the stunning way the book has been touching people all over the world. I loved your review in your blog.

    And I probably should have called her Ms. Willman until being given permission to do otherwise. (Bad manners!)

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