"The Boys in the Boat" is a work of historical nonfiction and tells the tale of nine young men who entered the University of Washington during the Depression, took on the challenges of rowing and made the crew team, then worked their way through a series of grueling competitions to represent both their school and their country in national and international competitions.
The book describes what it was like to grow up and attend college in Puget Sound in the 1930s. It explores how these young men, sons of farmers, loggers and shipyard workers, learned about life, struggled to meet their coaches’ expectations, and eventually learned to trust each other and become a team. Readers come to feel like they know each of the “boys,” as well as their enigmatic coach and the eccentric boat builder who becomes their mentor.
The heart of the story is Joe Rantz, a young man with no family or prospects who rows to put his personal demons to rest and find a home. Abandoned as a teenager, Joe worked several months to scrape together the funds to enter the University of Washington. He tried out for crew because making the team would guarantee him a campus job, which in turn would enable him to feed himself. Joe’s transformation from loner to someone who thinks of life in terms of how his actions will impact “the boat” carries the central theme of the power of commitment, determination and cooperation.
The book invites discussion of the role of sports in American culture and how it impacts the lives of individuals. As it progresses the reader sees a group of ordinary Americans struggle to defeat first their West Coast rivals, then the often wealthy boys from the Ivy League schools and, finally, the hand-picked elite rowers representing Nazi Germany. The team’s triumphs electrified and united the people of Seattle, who raised $5,000 in two days in 1936 to send them to Europe.
“The Boys in the Boat” highlights an era when many individuals thought they were disposable and had no control over their lives. Using the experiences of Joe Rantz and his teammates, Daniel James Brown gives the reader a tale about beating the odds and how sacrifice and trust can produce hope even in the most difficult of times.
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