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March 23, 2016

Review: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

by Kathleen Barker

The Boys in the Boat

I rarely read non-fiction, and I've never rowed.  I can count on one hand the number of crew races I've watched on television in my lifetime.  The books I choose to read are based on suggestions from a trusted circle of friends, and they are invariably fiction.  So, whatever possessed me to buy this book? 

A friend outside my reading circle raved about it on Facebook, so I decided to look it up.  I'd never heard of it and was knee-deep in my third re-reading of the Outlander books in preparation for the start of its second season in April.  Olympic rowers were not on my radar screen.  Yet when I checked on Amazon, there were over 17,000 reviews, and 81% were five stars.  The other 19% were four stars.  My interest was piqued.  How could so many people love a book that sounded kind of ho-hum to me?  I still had some money left on a holiday gift certificate, so that made it a little less painful to take a chance and check it out.

Yowza...I'm glad I did.

The sport of crew (rowing) is, for the most part, Eastern elitist.  What kind of chance did Depression-era young men have in the Seattle, Washington area?  I wondered if I were in for a deadly dull read about Rowing Rocky-types.  Yet author Daniel James Brown knows how to weave everyday details and historical timelines into a magic carpet ride of hope, determination, team bonds and glorious triumph.   The magical alignment at that point in the 1930's of British boatmaker George Pocock, the brilliant University of Washington coach Al Ulbrickson, and an unlikely group of young men from economically-devastated America is nothing short of historical lightning. 

The story centers on Joe Rantz, a boy who had been abandoned by his family, but survived through his wits and ability to endure a daily amount of hard labor that would have crushed a lesser spirit.  Thrown together as freshmen, the assortment of young men from dairy farms and lumber mills soon coalesced into a very special crew.  As they learned to submit to the harsh master that is team rowing, they ascended to a level of excellence that allowed them to represent the United States triumphantly at the infamous 1936 Olympics, otherwise known as Adolph Hitler's plan to showcase German superiority. 

Author Brown's ability to tell the story by blending descriptive detail and the euphoric memories of a dying Rantz make this an extraordinary tale that will enchant and inspire readers for years to come.

Buy The Boys in the Boat at Amazon

Book info:
available formats: ebook, audio and print (416 pages)
published: May 2014 by Penguin Books
ISBN13: 978-0143125471
genres: non-fiction, sports
source: purchased

Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Kathleen Barker attended Catholic elementary and high schools before graduating with a B.A. in English and Education from Towson University. She also attended Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. After 20 years as the widely-traveled wife of a U.S. Navy pilot and mother of three, Ms. Barker worked in New Orleans, LA for a Forbes 500 company until just before Hurricane Katrina. During her tenure there she wrote multiple feature articles for the company magazine, and received the Field Reporter of the Year Award. She returned to her beloved home state of Maryland in 2006, where she still resides.  Her published works include "Ednor Scardens", "The Body War", "The Hurting Year" and "On Gabriel's Wings".  Barker maintains a blog, "Dashboard Confessions of an Undisciplined Mind" at

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