Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: The Boys in the Boat

Maybe it's from my youth and watching the likes of "The Mighty Ducks" and "Remember the Titans," but I've always loved an underdog story. Whether its people overcoming personal obstacles or rallying to become the champion when no one expected them to win, I love watching people triumph. In the case of Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, originally published last year by Viking but was just released on paperback this summer by Penguin, the reader gets the best of both worlds in an excellent, page-turning read.

The book tells the story of the 1936 University of Washington rowing, or crew, team as they beat the rival University of California team and went on to represent the U.S. in the Berlin Olympics. Brown profiles every member of the team, especially Joe Rantz, who survived a rough childhood to get to college. Every member of the crew faced the hardships of the Great Depression, growing up in Northwestern logging camps, dairy farms and mining towns. Brown paints each setting, whether its the shell house where the crew's boat is stored or the Olympic race course, with painstaking detail akin to Laura Hillenbrand's outstanding Unbroken and Seabiscuit.

Initially, there are some personality clashes as people vie for spots on the crew, not to mention the inner rivalries between the class levels. But as the team gels together, the pace of the book quickens and I found myself rooting for the team more and more. I would sit in bed reading into the late night hours audibly cheering for the crew. Even the side characters like coach Al Ulbrickson, boat designer George Pocock and the sports journalists that follow the team, especially Seattle sports icon Royal Brougham, are all fully fleshed out.

As the story shifts to Europe, the pace picks up and Brown explains beautifully how Hitler wanted the Games to be, particularly involving filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, as well as how the team interacted with other Olympians. I have seldom watched an Olympic crew race on television, but I have a better understanding of the sport, both in terms of the strength and stamina needed and the strategy involved. I was absolutely riveted in the last race.

Here is the trailer for the book:

I absolutely loved this book and it is one of the top 3 books I've read this year. When I write feature stories, it's books like this that I aim for as an example of feature writing at its best. The book celebrates the triumph of what people can do when they work together as a singular unit and achieve great things. I try to be judicious in handing out 5-star ratings, but The Boys in the Boat is a book I'm glad I own in hardcover and will remain on my shelf for years to come. Rating 5/5 stars

Apparently, there is a film adaptation in the works. In 2011, more than two years prior to publication, The Weinstein Company purchased the film rights to the novel. The company distributed and produced such Oscar fare as "Silver Linings Playbook," "The Artist," and "The King's Speech." At the time, it was announced that"Thor" director Kenneth Branagh was attached to direct. However, there has been little to no new developments since the initial announcement.

Below, Brown further explains how he came to write the book at a Q&A session inside Washington D.C. literary landmark Politics and Prose:

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