“Boys in the Boat” Review

Trolling Amazon Kindle led me to discover this new rowing book:

Curious, I downloaded and read in two days.

The author traces the journey of the seventh seat, Joe Rantz, from a young boy to his Olympic glory. Brown has taken great pains in research and accurately incorporates rowing jargon. He manages to capture the tension of the time in Germany, the rivalries of competitive programs, and the craftsmanship of George Pocock. Despite his efforts to relate the beauty of a rowing 8+ at full power, it’s clear from the outset the author is not, and has never been, a rower. I hope that as part of his research into the book that Mr. Brown did attempt to sit in a shell and glide across a rippling surface reflecting a golden sunrise, but his attempts to capture the pain, tension, and glory of rowing are mostly scientific.

Not that there is no value in understanding the science of a sport rooted in physics, buoyancy, and energy transfer.  Take this gem:

“Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand meter race–The Olympic standard–takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back.  And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.”(page 40)

Or this one:

“Pound for pound, Olympic oarsmen may take in and process as much oxygen as a thoroughbred racehorse.” (40)

Interesting facts–helpful to the general public that have never sat in the rowing shell.  I can imagine a reader thinking of our lungs inflating like massive balloons sucking in air.  Or perhaps wondering what a basketball match between the Harvard Men’s Varsity 8+ and the Miami Heat might result in…?

The best rowing quotes are not always Mr. Brown’s words, but the language he borrows from those inside the sport–such as Mr. Pocock, a shell craftsman who hand-carved the wooden 8’s now adorning museums, ceilings, and walls around the country as memories of a age gone by.

“Rowing a race is an art, not a frantic scramble.  It must be rowed with head power as well as hand power.  From the first stroke all thoughts of the other crew must be blocked out.  Your thoughts must be directed to you and your own boat, always positive, never negative.” George Yeoman Pocock (page 105)

Mr. Brown has used his head in this crafting his book.  He’s watched Olympia, he interviewed Joe Rantz, he visited the University of Washington archives, and more.  He’s been careful and methodical–an hour of footnotes awaits the reader at the end.  Nonetheless, there’s a sense of missing pieces.  An 8+ is a boat of nine bodies; as Mr. Brown notes in his book, it’s a combination of the right personalities.  A solid eight needs a sprinkle of humor, someone with the fire to push everyone else on, the rock that is reliable…the same is true of the novel.   His narrow focus isn’t entirely his fault; without the other rowers in the boat still living to share their opinion on the experiences, it’s hard to get a sense of who these men were. Our impressions of them are those gleaned from Joe Rantz’s eyes and it limits the book’s ability to fully capture the essence of a champion racing crew.

Narrowing in on Joe Rantz is a way to help draw the reader into the rower’s seat by allowing connections to a single character, to better appreciate a man’s sacrifices and hardships in pursuing a lofty goal, and to build a cleaner narrative.   As Americans, we like our come-from-nothing-look-at-me-now dramas, and Mr. Rantz’s life story plays to our love of  down-on-their luck characters succeeding.   Not that I intend to downplay his sacrifices–what Mr. Rantz and the entire crew, an entire generation really, achieved is astounding.  In the end, this is a book about a crew, and I feel that it should be more about the crew as a whole.

There is one moment in the book where Mr. Brown fully succeeded in capturing what separates a recreationally competitive crew and a first-class racing crew:

“It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.” (page 40)


Row on.  Two months to Nationals.

About camckenna

I write; I row.
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