Creative Nonfiction Review: The Boys in the Boat

indexEvery September, the Maryland Humanities Council hosts One Maryland One Book.  The idea is that all over the state, people read and talk about the same book, which fits into the year’s chosen theme.  This year, the theme was “Sports: the human drama of athletic competition” and the book was The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.  The Humanities Council provides free, online resources such as discussion guides and lesson plans.  While the Council doesn’t have the funds to give every citizen a free copy of the One Book, many Maryland Library systems buy copies and distribute them to readers who participate in library-run book clubs.  I’m lucky enough to have received a copy of the book from my local library for many years running, and this year was no exception.

But … when I first saw this year’s One Book, I cringed and dreaded opening the cover.

Rowing.  The Depression.  Hitler. Strife.  Eh.

I wasn’t really in the mood for the book.  My life is stressful and hard enough right now, and the last thing I wanted was to read a book about some college boys rowing in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Or so I thought.

Daniel James Brown got my attention right from the start through his first-person introduction to the book.  I felt like a friend or neighbor was taking me into his confidence and relating a story that only he really knew and was going to share with me, personally.  And it worked – I was hooked.

The book details the story of eight oarsmen and the coxswain from The University of Washington as they battle their way to Olympic victory in the 1936 games.  But the story is about more than their gold-medal triumph.  Through Brown’s excellent storytelling, readers get a sense of the atmosphere outside the boat, 1930s America, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and the world around them.  Brown also connects readers further by delving deeper into one story in particular: the story of Joe Rantz, who begins as an outsider from the Dust Bowl with a complicated background.  And as Joe struggles to find his way, the team struggles to find its rhythm.  This crafty technique humanizes the story, makes it real and personal, and one cannot help but feel vested in the outcome.  We know going in that the boys take home gold, but we don’t know the personal details that got them there.  Brown delivers these details in a way that makes you want to turn the pages faster and faster.

The Boys in the Boat is a story about crew, yes.  But it is also a story about life and overcoming our personal hangups to find a way to row smoothly to the finish.  The team and Joe ultimately find their rhythm but only by overcoming the past and opening themselves up to each other.  Any writer interested in creative nonfiction should read this book and take technical notes, and anyone just interested in a good read should pick up a copy and get ready to be drawn into a truly great book.

Have you read it?  What did you think?  I’d love to hear more opinions!


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