Books: The Boys in the Boat

(Image / Penguin Books)

Seattle – I recently finished The Boys in the Boat, the outstanding work of non-fiction by Daniel James Brown.

In the book, set in the late 1920s to mid-1930s, Brown uses Joe Rantz, a member of several University of Washington crew teams of that era, as his narrative focal point for conveying the story of one boat’s miraculous efforts on the waterways around Seattle and well beyond. Brown explains the deep meaning of the simple word ‘boat’ in the recollection of Rantz, and to many rowers, present and past.

The Boys in the Boat is immediately engaging, as Brown came to know Rantz in the latter’s dying days and through a series of meetings with the former rower gathered the story.

Rantz’s childhood starts out with difficulty and plummets downward. His mother passes away while Joe is a child and as a teen his father – along with his second wife and the remainder of the family – depart their hometown of Sequim, Washington, leaving Joe behind. It’s an unthinkable move by his father and stepmother but Joe persists on his own, in a half-built farmhouse, on a “stump farm”       land previously lumbered and left riddled with the stumps of trees. It’s in this grim setting that Rantz soldiers on and graduates from high school.

From there life gets only slightly easier as Joe has to work both dangerous and difficult summer jobs to remain a student at the University of Washington. Throughout, he wonders where his father and family are, and also if he will make the rowing team, one of the nation’s best.

The more I tell of the story, the more of an unbelievable one I’ll give away, so I will limit it there and say that Rantz and his peers continue to strive toward excellence in the rowing shell. Their ultimate goal becomes a spot in the 1936 Olympics.

Brown’s writing style is perfect, as are his detours from a straight chronological thread. At times Brown leaves Rantz and his crew behind to tell of the ominous rise of Nazi Germany that is a significant component of the 1936 games, held in Berlin. He also takes diversions into the life of George Yeomans Pocock, the English racing shell builder who relocated to Seattle and had such a prominent hand in the fortunes of Rantz and his crew. Brown chose to feature a quote from Pocock at the beginning of each chapter, and their placement throughout the narrative gives it added depth.

I listened to the book during long drives along I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, and the narrator, the late Edward Herrmann, delivers his last and perhaps best performance of many audiobook efforts. Between the storyline, Brown’s writing talents, and – in the case of the audio book – Herrmann’s storytelling ability, The Boys in the Boat proved one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. – TF