Why The Boys in the Boat Will Be the Next “Chariots of Fire”

Go read the book NOW. Well, sometime in the next couple of years. That’s how long it will take Miramax to make the movie. Which you will also want to see.

But don’t, don’t, don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure of discovering this story of the boys in the boat via paper. Need some reasons?

1. The Boys in the Boat is the most incredible story you’ve never heard. When you read about the improbable journey of 9 University of Washington boys (who had only started rowing 4 years before) going head-to-head with the fascist Germans and Italians at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, you will think, as I did: “WHOA. Why hasn’t this story been out there along with Jesse Owens’s?”

(I mean, I have a Master’s in U.S. History from the University of Washington, for goodness’s sake–and this was all news to me! 80,000 people watching a boat race on Lake Union? Really???? How did I not know this?)


2.The Boys in the Boat is about individual grit and endurance. It’s also about team unity to a ridiculously intricate degree. This must be why author Daniel James Brown says that he gets daily emails from people on both sides of the political spectrum saying, “If only people from the other side would read this book…!”

(Note: Daniel James Brown. Not that other Dan Brown. This one understands character development.)

3. It’s a thrilling underdog sports story. Think Seabiscuit times 9. (Or 10 or 11, if you count they boys’ coach and their zen-master English boat builder.)

(And face it, Seabiscuit’s a horse, so he didn’t leave much in the way of letters and diaries to comb through, as Brown did so meticulously.)

4. It’s a character study of the most inspiring kind, appealing to both females and males, old and young. Joe Ranz, the rower who dropped his story into Brown’s lap just months before dying, was left motherless at five, pushed out of the family by his stepmother at 14, and learned that he could only rely on himself to survive. Then, four years later, he had to completely un-learn this lesson in order to be able to trust his teammates, keep his seat in the boat, and help propel them to victory.

(And of course this is all in the depths of the Depression, so Ranz is desperately poor, working on a cliff face at the Grand Coulee Dam site, for goodness’s sake, over the summer, living in a boarding house, eating people’s leftovers…Brown says that what drew him to Ranz’s story was the way he teared up when talking about “the boat”–by which he meant all nine of them. It will tear you up too.)

5. Brown’s level of researched detail is astounding. He says a reader once challenged him about his description of the UW coach chewing gum during a tense race–halting the chewing–then chewing again at the end. “How could you possibly know that?” His answer: about 25 eyewitness accounts, sportswriters of the time. He claims nothing in the book is made up, and I see no reason not to believe him.

(YES. Readable history for the masses!!!)

If I were critiquing style, I would say that the book’s narration felt a little grandiose in places, a bit inflated. But that’s nitpicking. It’s mostly seamless, and the racing scenes are riveting.

So here’s my prediction: This movie, when it’s made, will be the next Chariots of Fire. Everyone will see it. Everyone will hum the inspiring theme tune. Everyone will cheer when it wins an Oscar for best…whatever. Democracy vs. Fascism. Individual Grit vs. the Team.The Greatest Generation…as boys. In a boat.

Have you read it? Please give your impressions HERE! Or chime in with some other greatest-story-never-told.


8 thoughts on “Why The Boys in the Boat Will Be the Next “Chariots of Fire”

  1. Haven’t read it yet, but other friends have and echo your praise. It just moved up on my to-read list and has been added to my give to my grandchildren to read list…Many thanks!!

  2. Almost finished with it. Saving the last pages for a special quiet time alone. Best book I’ve read since the one by John K……..about the climb of Mt. Everest. Unbelievable determination…..please let me never complain about life being hard.

  3. I just finished reading this for my book club. Great story. One of the ladies in the club has a brother-in-law who teaches at the University of Washington and she’s introducing him to this book too. (He had no idea either!)

    • And, as you’ve noted, a major part of the story is the simple modesty of the “boys” in question. So many ways they could have publicized their amazing exploit, and none of them did.

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