The events might be 80 years old, but the themes ring true today: teamwork, sporting excellence and triumph over adversity.
“The Boys in the Boat,” a 2013 historical non-fiction book by Daniel James Brown about the 1936 Olympic gold medal rowing team from the University of Washington, is Pierce County Library’s book for the 8th Annual Pierce County Reads program, which launches today. And as with previous years’ books, this one is not only written by a regional author (Brown lives in Redmond) but it offers up plenty of food for community discussion, not to mention two months’ worth of workshops, film screenings and other events.
Currently being developed as a film by director Kenneth Branagh, “The Boys in the Boat” rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and spent more than 40 weeks on NPR’s bestseller list.
As the subtitle explains, “The Boys in the Boat” is an account of how the UW’s nine-man rowing crew made their way from poor, Depression-stricken homes to college, beating out reigning California crews and annoying East Coast institutions to become the American contenders for gold at the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Jesse Owens challenged Hitler’s racial stereotyping and the Nazi regime was successfully presented as benign to the rest of the world. Weaving threads of European history with personal narratives and the quest for sporting excellence, Brown paints detailed scenes of the 1930s in both Seattle and Berlin.
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Brown tells a gripping tale bookended by his own story of how he came to meet the last surviving crew member, Joe Rantz, just 10 months before Rantz died in his Seattle home.
The Pierce County Reads program chooses its books for their adaptability to both events and community discussion. Events throughout March and April at county libraries and other venues include jazz concerts, genealogy and boat-building information sessions, historical talks, film screenings (including vintage Nazi propagandist films). On April 18, the Puyallup Historical Society will give a presentation on rower George “Shorty” Hunt, Jr., a Puyallup boy who was part of the gold-winning crew. Hunt’s daughter Kristin Cheney will attend, and on April 12 library director Georgia Lomax will interview Rantz’s daughter Judy Willman.
On April 24, author Brown, who has two other historical non-fiction works under his belt, will speak and sign books at the closing event at Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood.
Brown spoke with The News Tribune about the genesis for “The Boys in the Boat,” how he does his research, and how much he found out about rowing.
Q: You explain in the prologue how you came upon this story — rower Joe Rantz’s daughter Judy got in touch with you because of your books — and how you knew right away you wanted to tell it. Did you ever wonder if a book about rowing might be a hard sell?
A: Yeah, I did wonder a lot about that. There’s a hump it has to overcome with every new reader; I get emails every day from people saying they almost didn’t read the book because they didn’t care about rowing. But it’s about so much more than that.
Q: It does have a lot of themes: the underdog coming through, the rewards of persistence, the historical themes of war and propaganda, and how we find somewhere we can call home. For you, what is the big takeaway thread — the most important?
A: I think the story of these nine young American boys who climbed into a boat to pull so strongly and beautifully together is a perfect metaphor for what that generation did: the Greatest Generation. It was all about trust, teamwork. The Depression really humbled them all, and they learned to build great teams. Rowing is a nice metaphor for that.
Q: The sheer quantity and depth of research you did for this book is impressive. How long did all that research take you?
A: Between four and four-and-a-half years. The first year was mostly research, the last year mostly writing with a bit of research.
Q: Is it a well-documented period?
A: Yes, it is. One of the things I had going for me was that because rowing was so enormously popular in the 1920s and ‘30s, every newspaper wrote about it. For any given race I could find dozens and dozens of articles, even mentioning details like what the coach was wearing.
Q: Was any of it a challenge to research?
A: It’s a lot of drudgery, hauling a microphone around to find out this and that detail. But it’s not a challenge — I revel in that kind of work.
Q: This is your third historical non-fiction book. Why do you like that genre?
A: I read a lot of that same genre; I enjoy it a lot to start with. But also, because it’s non-fiction, I have the safety of a framework of fact. I’m not sure I have the imagination to write an entire fiction novel, but I can recognize a good story when I see it. And that framework does give me the freedom to develop characters and scenes. It’s a nice halfway point between fiction and dry history.
Q: Many reviews have compared “The Boys in the Boat” to “Chariots of Fire” and “Seabiscuit” because of the underdog theme and wartime setting. Did that similarity cross your mind while you were writing?
A: Actually, the day after I met Joe, when I knew I had to write his story, I was traveling to Hawaii, and I had a paperback copy of “Seabiscuit” in my bag to read. I marked up every single page with notes, because it was the kind of book I knew I wanted to write. So yes, I do consciously study other people to see what writing decisions they make.
Q: You also write in a very cinematic style. Given that you’d signed the film rights in 2011, way before you published, and that film plays a big part in “The Boys in the Boat,” was writing cinematically a deliberate decision?
A: It is the way that I write anyway. I think of chunks as scenes, and divide them into chapters later on. Once I know what the scene is — like the opening scene of Joe and Roger walking down the UW campus to the boathouse — I get a sense of the beginning and the end of the scene. Then I do minute research on things like the weather, what people are wearing, I look at photographs. It gets developed in my head to the point where I have to write it all down or I’ll forget it.
But the actual film came about when I was writing my book proposal, and my agent asked me to write a 17-page synopsis (that’s really long for a synopsis!), scene by scene. And because it was so cinematic, that’s how Hollywood got interested.
Q: Do you know what stage the film is at right now?
A: No, once I signed the rights off, a curtain came down! I only know they’re working on a script. Really, I have no clue when it will come out.
Q: What will you speak about when you appear for the Pierce County Reads program on April 24?
A: People like to hear about how I wrote the book, how I met Joe. I talk about that gold medal, and often show a video clip with the presentation (in Berlin). I talk about what made those kids able to accomplish what they did.
Q: In “The Boys in the Boat” you devote many pages to the essence of rowing itself: its philosophy, mental demands, existential nature. Have you ever rowed?
A: Everyone asks that, and no, I haven’t done anything you could really call rowing. That was one of my big concerns, but I was lucky in that the crew at the University of Washington gave me access to their coaches and best rowers. … My schedule has been really busy, but sometime I think I may actually learn how to scull in a single boat. I’m past the time of life where I can climb in and row in a team. … I’m not very fit!