The Boys in the Boat is in that same feel-good zone with The Wright Brothers and Seabiscuit and Unbroken and name your big sweeping All-American, go-get-‘em, against-all-odds kind of saga underscored with a healthy dose of patriotism. Check the reviews on this one—fully 95 percent of Amazon readers rate this four or five stars with the clock at 16,000 reviews and ticking.
That’s a lot of cheerleading already but hand me a megaphone—The Boys in the Boat is terrific. It’s a lesson in teamwork at the highest level–nine guys with one mission. It’s a lesson in coaching. With its Depression-era backdrop, it’s a lesson in sacrifice and hard work. And it’s also a lesson in drive and hope and persistence.
I think you get the picture. I went into this knowing nothing about rowing, except admiring the crews out on The Charles River in Boston, near where I grew up. So I learned something from The Boys in The Boat about the coxswain’s role and the tricky physics of boat construction, and how rowers are developed, positioned on the boat, trained (endlessly and in all weather) and conditioned. I also had no idea that competitive rowing was once such a thing, live radio broadcasts and all.
The Boys in the Boat story follows the scrappy disheveled motley crew of underdogs from the University of Washington as they first bite the ankles of those elite rowing teams from snobbier, wealthier schools back east (as well as pesky rivals from out west) and then prove their worth at the 1936 Olympics, right under Hitler’s nose. At every turn, the crew faced a challenge from fundraising to boat repairs to a sick crew member and a last-minute flip flop in the rules that yanked away the preferred lane assignment they had earned when the medal was on the line. Setback after setback, odds are stacked and then stacked higher and here they come, the steady-rowing perfectionists from Washington State.
But the “boys” in the boat could have easily just been titled “the boy in the boat” or “Joe Rantz and The Husky Clipper.” The story’s primary focus is hard-luck Joe and his personal struggles, both on the crew and with his personal life. And it turns the cedar shell into a living, breathing character all its own. As the crew makes progress under the watchful eye of coach Al Ulbrickson, Daniel James Brown manages to keep our eyes on the rise of Hitler and makes sure we know precisely the kind of environment the boys were entering when they finally reached Berlin.
Predictable? A bit. Repetitive? Here and there. A bit glossy? Perhaps. But with writing is as smooth as a morning row on calm water, The Boys in the Boat will take you out for a memorable, interesting cruise.