By Joe Tash
Daniel James Brown’s book about nine working-class boys from the Pacific Northwest who rowed their way into history by winning a gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in front of Adolf Hitler began with a brief conversation in Brown’s own living room.
Brown, a Seattle resident, had already written two successful non-fiction books and was looking for a new topic. He had hosted a community meeting in his home, and afterward he was approached by a neighbor who asked if he would come by to meet her elderly father.
“This story literally walked into my living room one day after a homeowners association meeting,” said Brown, the featured speaker at the March meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society. The meeting was held at The Grand Del Mar
Shortly after that initial conversation, Brown sat down with Joe Rantz, who had a compelling story to tell about perseverance, deprivation, love and trust, all against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the buildup to World War II. Rantz, who was in his 90s at the time, was dying of congenital heart failure and would be gone just a few months later.
“By the end of that first conversation, I was completely mesmerized and ready to go,” said Brown in an interview before his talk. “The story got richer and richer the more I dug into it.”
The end result of Brown’s digging and writing was “The Boys in the Boat,” which was published by Viking in June 2013. The paperback edition comes out this summer, and movie rights to the book were recently purchased by producer Harvey Weinstein.
At one level, the book tells the tale of the varsity rowing team at the University of Washington, which won a national championship on the way to its Olympic destiny. But it’s also a story about the struggles of Rantz and his teammates to survive during brutal economic times, and of western democracy vs. facism.
“This book comes down to a race between a bunch of American boys against German boys and Italian boys,” said Brown. “I wanted the reader to be aware of what was at stake symbolically in that race. It was a clash not just of boys in boats, but very different views of the world.”
Brown spent four years researching and writing the book, which reads like a novel as it chronicles the early adulthood of Rantz and his crew, but also cuts to dark scenes of Germany during the early 1930s, soon after Hitler’s rise to power.
Along with countless interviews of family members of the rowing team, Brown went on the water himself to get the feel of being an oarsman, learned to cut cedar shingles as Rantz did, and traveled to the lake near Berlin where the fateful 2,000-meter race took place nearly 80 years ago. He also pored through boxes of letters, diaries and other documents provided by the families, as well as reading newspaper articles from the ‘30s.
One challenge in writing the book, said Brown, was that the events portrayed in the story had occurred more than seven decades earlier. In Seattle, particularly, people knew that the University of Washington crew had won gold at Berlin, and the boat they used, called a rowing shell, is still on display at the school.
He counted on the peaks and valleys of the story to carry the reader’s interest.
“Even though you know they win that gold medal race, you want to see how they get to the next step along the way, how they overcome the various challenges they face,” he said.
The story progresses from Joe Rantz’ first appearance at the Washington shell house, through team victories leading to the Olympics — Rantz never lost a race during his rowing career. Along the way, the book puts the reader into life in Depression-era America with vivid clarity.
In their gold medal race, the boys had nearly reached their physical limits as the finish line approached. The event attracted 75,000 screaming spectators, including the Nazi high command.
“Somewhere, deep down inside, each of them grasped at shreds of will and strength they did not know they possessed. Their hearts were pumping at nearly two hundred beats per minute now. They were utterly beyond exhaustion, beyond what their bodies should be able to endure,” Brown wrote of the race’s climax.
Brown took great pains to accurately depict the intricacies of rowing and the intense interest in the sport in 1930s America, when as many as 100,000 would turn out to watch a regatta. But in the end, the story was about the nine boys.
“These were kids who grew up in mill towns and fishing towns in the Northwest. They grew strong wielding axes and hay forks. They were nine really nice young men, all good-hearted and they remained that way for the rest of their lives. They’re just a bunch of really good guys,” he said.
For more information, visit www.danieljamesbrown.com. “The Boys in the Boat” is available on amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com) and more.