Blake Snow

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BOOK REVIEW: Boys in the Boat highlights American grit, hardship, and winning history

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown is a wonderful story about overcoming neglect, economic depression, immense pain, and even global fascism in the 1930s. With exception to the Nazis, the characters are likable. The prose is poetic. And the well-documented feat is awe-inspiring. Five stars out of five.

These are my favorite passages:

  • The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it.
  • 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… The common denominator (of rowing)—whether in the lungs, the muscles, or the bones—is overwhelming pain.
  • For eight hours a day, he shoveled steaming asphalt out of trucks and raked it out flat in advance of the steamrollers, the unrelenting heat rising from the black asphalt melding with the heat from the sun overhead, as if the two sources were competing to see which would kill him first.
  • “It takes energy to get angry. It eats you up inside. I can’t waste my energy like that and expect to get ahead.”
  • “Sure, I can make a boat,” he said, and then added, quoting the poet Joyce Kilmer, “‘But only God can make a tree.’”
  • “People in New York are all very tired looking, pale, & soft. The people seldom smile & don’t look healthy & full of vigor as out west.”
  • Royal Brougham watched the boys from a distance as they left their shell house in Poughkeepsie the next day and wrote, “The eight oarsmen quietly shook hands, departed on different paths, and the crew that is hailed as the finest rowing combination of all time passed into history.”
  • Like most of the Americans in Berlin that summer, they had concluded that the new Germany was a pretty nice place. It was clean, the people were friendly almost to a fault, everything worked neatly and efficiently, and the girls were pretty… The illusion surrounding the Olympic Games was complete, the deception masterful. Joseph Goebbels had artfully accomplished what all good propagandists must, convincing the world that their version of reality was reasonable and their opponents’ version biased. It was as if they said, “Welcome to the Third Reich. We are not what they say we are.”
  • They are almost all gone now—the legions of young men who saved the world in the years just before I was born. But that afternoon, standing on the balcony of Haus West, I was swept with gratitude for their goodness and their grace, their humility and their honor, their simple civility and all the things they taught us before they flitted across the evening water and finally vanished into the night.