The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

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Overview

For readers of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit and Unbroken, the dramatic story of the American rowing team that stunned the world at Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics

Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and ...

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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

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Overview

For readers of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit and Unbroken, the dramatic story of the American rowing team that stunned the world at Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics

Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard and to find a place he can call home. The crew is assembled  by an enigmatic coach and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat builder, but it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. They remind the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together—a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism.

Drawing on the boys’ own diaries and journals, their photos and memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, The Boys in the Boat is an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate story of nine working-class boys from the American west who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really meant. It will appeal to readers of Erik Larson, Timothy Egan, James Bradley, and David Halberstam's The Amateurs.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Slate called it "the greatest underdog, Nazi-defeating American Olympic victory you've never heard of." To 1936 newspaper readers, the triumph of the University of Washington's eight-oar crew in the Berlin Olympics was a matter of great national pride. To its youthful team members and coach, this once-in-a- lifetime experience forever clarified their sense of self and group identity. Daniel James Brown's captivating The Boy in the Boat rescues this all too little-known story with interviews and primary resources, including the boys' own diaries, journals, photos, and memories. Perfect for fans of Laura Hillenbrand, Erik Larson, and Timothy Egan.

Publishers Weekly
Doughty rowers heave against hard times and Nazis in this rousing sports adventure. Brown (Under a Flaming Sky) follows the exploits of the University of Washington’s eight-man crew, whose national dynasty culminated in a gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Brown tells it as an all-American story of humble working-class boys squaring off against a series of increasingly odious class and political foes: their West Coast rivals at Berkeley; the East Coast snobs at the Poughkeepsie championship regatta; and ultimately the German team, backed by Goebbels and his sinisterly choreographed Olympic propaganda. The narrative’s affecting center is Joe Rantz, a young every-oarsman who wrestles with the psychic wounds inflicted on him by poverty and abandonment during the Great Depression. For this nautical version of Chariots of Fire, Brown crafts an evocative, cinematic prose (“their white blades flashed above the water like the wings of sea birds flying in formation”) studded with engrossing explanations of rowing technique and strategy, exciting come-from-behind race scenes, and the requisite hymns to “mystic bands of trust and affection” forged on the water. Brown lays on the aura of embattled national aspiration good and thick, but he makes his heroes’ struggle as fascinating as the best Olympic sagas. Photos. Agent: Dorian Karchman, WME. (June 4)
Kirkus Reviews
The long, passionate journey of the University of Washington rowing team to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The nine young Americans (including coxswain Bob Moch) who made up the team in the Husky Clipper that would eventually edge to victory by six-tenths of a second ahead of the Italians in the Olympics emerged from the harsh realities of the Depression, as Brown (The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, 2009, etc.) delineates in this thorough study of the early rowing scene. The journey of one young rower, Joe Rantz, forms the emotional center of the narrative. A tall, strapping country boy who had largely been fending for himself in Sequim, Wash., in 1933, he got a shot as a freshman at making the prestigious crew team at UW, which was led by freshman coach Tom Bolles and head coach Al Ulbrickson. Many strands converge in the narrative, culminating in a rich work of research, from the back story involving the creation of UW's rowing program to the massive planning and implementation of the Berlin Olympics by Hitler's engineer Werner March, specifically the crew venue at the Langer See. The UW team honed its power and finesse in the lead-up seasons by racing against its nemesis, the University of California at Berkeley, as well as in East Coast regattas. Despite the threat of an American boycott, the Berlin Olympics were carefully orchestrated by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and filmed by Leni Riefenstahl to show the world the terrifying images of Aryan "purity" and Nazi supremacy. Yet for these American boys, it was an amazing dream. A touching, fairly uncomplicated portrayal of rowing legends.
Library Journal
In this sweeping saga, Brown (Under a Flaming Sky; The Indifferent Stars Above) vividly relates how, in 1936, nine working-class rowers from the University of Washington captured gold at the Berlin Olympics. Mentored not just by their coach but by legendary boat-builder George Pocock, these athletes overcame the hopelessness common during the Great Depression by learning to trust themselves and one another, and by rowing with grace and power. The crew's camaraderie and unmatched precision surpassed expectations, shocking the sporting world. Brown faithfully conveys rowing's stoic persistence, passion, and pain. He captures how and why this team rowed in flawless harmony. The story's depth comes from the memories that rower Joe Rantz shared with Brown shortly before his death as well as from Brown's interviews with crewmates' friends and family and their archives. In a brief epilog, Brown comments on the rowers' post-Olympic accomplishments. VERDICT Those who enjoy reading about Olympic history or amateur or collegiate sports will savor Brown's superb book, much as they would enjoy David Halberstam's The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal, which examined the 1984 single scull trials.—Jerry P. Miller, Cambridge, MA
The Barnes & Noble Review

The only rowing I have ever done in my life is in a heavy rowboat in the sea, with the goal, occasionally achieved, of getting a fish on my line. Of competitive rowing, I have known absolutely nothing until recently, this despite observing countless singles and crews plying the waters of the Charles River, along which I walk almost every day. Passing between Cambridge and Boston, the river teems with rowers a good part of the year, the most splendid sight of all being the eights sweeping by with their little, brass-voiced coxswains barking from the stern. Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is a fine introduction to the sport (the oldest chronicled one, he says). It is a story of the triumph of nobodies from nowhere, punctuated by truly thrilling accounts of contests of strategy, stamina, and might.

I don't think I give too much away in saying that the American rowing eight won the gold at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin and that it did so in the face of dishonorable machinations on the part of the organizers. I will even reveal that the Husky Clipper, the shell the Americans rowed to victory, was christened by its builder with sauerkraut juice. But if the Olympics make up the book's culminating event, its center is occupied by Joe Rantz, an impecunious boy from a troubled family background, twenty-two years old when he went to Berlin. Born in Spokane, Joe was the second son of Harry, a person so inspired by the marvels and promise of technological progress that he married his first wife over the telephone. Harry, however, was not a lucky man: his various business endeavors failed; his wife, Joe's mother, died; and his second wife eventually insisted on Joe's expulsion from the family. For Joe it was a sad beginning to a what became, thanks to his endurance and courage, a happy life.

After high school, young Joe worked as a manual laborer, earning enough to get him part of the way through the first year at the University of Washington in Seattle, a "world of pressed trousers, of briar pipes and cardigan sweaters." His ability to remain in college for the whole year depended on getting a part-time job on the campus, which, in turn, rested on his earning a place on the school's rowing team. It was an uncongenial milieu for one as ragged and unpreppy as Joe, but he endured where dozens of his elegant classmates disappeared once they got a taste of the grueling reality.

A sport of greater prominence than it is today, rowing in the 1930s was even more associated with the well heeled than it is now (which is saying plenty) and, in American rowing, with the East Coast. At the time, Brown observes, "the center of gravity in American collegiate rowing still lay somewhere between Cambridge, New Haven, Princeton, Ithaca, and Annapolis." The emergence of strong, winning western crews that began in the 1920s was a shock to eastern sensibilities: California was bad enough, but Washington, with its hick reputation as a a state of lumberjacks and fishermen, was an affront. Be that as it may, in the West, the rivalry between the universities of Washington and California was where the real acrimony lay. California had not only trounced Washington in the recent past; it had represented the United States in the 1932 Olympics.

A fine cast of characters inhabit this tale, among them the coach Al Ulbrickson, "the Dour Dane," taciturn and demanding, a man whose experience with rowing included his having had to row two miles each way to attend high school; the English boatbuilder George Yeoman Pocock (what a name!), whose adoption of western red cedar for the hulls of the shells transformed their construction and conferred upon them unprecedented liveliness and increased speed. He also served as unofficial adviser to the Washington crew, passing on the rowing technique he had learned as a boy from Thames boatmen — a romantic detail that is only one among the many that make this such an enthralling adventure. Then there are the other crewmen, among them the coxswain, Bobby Moch, a small, brainy leader and strategic genius who learned a troubling family secret shortly before going off to Berlin, and the stroke, Don Hume, a master of rhythm possessed of preternatural willpower.

Brown concentrates his attention on Joe's life; the leadership, assembly, and dynamics of the Washington crew; the properties of racing shells; and, of course, the terrific races. I cannot resist giving one sample, in this case from Brown's description of a race, preliminary to the Olympic trials, in which California and Washington competed: "The boys now had open water between them and the California Clipper, and in the last half mile they accelerated in a way that no shell had ever accelerated on Lake Washington. As they flew down the last few hundred yards, their eight taut bodies rocked back and forth like pendulums, in perfect synchronicity. Their white blades flashed above the water like the wings of seabirds flying in formation?. Hundreds of boat whistles shrieked. The locomotive on the observation train wailed. Students on the Chippewa screamed. And a long, sustained roar went up from the tens of thousands standing along Sheridan Beach as?." No, I think I'll leave it right there.

Along the way, Brown intersperses passages on the national and international situation, most of which have a pro forma feel compared to the drama of the main subject. But so what? He is a superb sportswriter, conveying the almost unbearable tension of the races, the particular strengths of character and physique demanded by competitive rowing: physical ability, mastery of technique, and trust in and harmony with one's fellow crew members, the last being the ineffable ingredients that propel the boat into a fourth dimension of grace and speed, elevating crew and vessel into the realm of greatness. As it happens, right around the time of this book's publication, the 2013 University of Washington varsity eights vanquished Harvard to win the Challenge Cup Trophy (for the third year in a row) in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670025817
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 6/4/2013
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 989
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.18 (h) x 1.36 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel James Brown is the author of two previous nonfiction books, Under a Flaming Sky and The Indifferent Stars Above. He has taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford. He lives near Seattle.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

In a sport like this—hard work, not much glory, but still popular in every century—well, there must be some beauty which ordinary men can’t see, but extraordinary men do. —George Yeoman Pocock

This book was born on a cold, drizzly, late spring day when I clambered over the split-rail cedar fence that surrounds my pasture and made my way through wet woods to the modest frame house where Joe Rantz lay dying.

I knew only two things about Joe when I knocked on his daughter Judy’s door that day. I knew that in his midseventies he had single-handedly hauled a number of cedar logs down a mountain, then hand-split the rails and cut the posts and installed all 2,224 linear feet of the pasture fence I had just climbed over—a task so herculean I shake my head in wonderment whenever I think about it. And I knew that he had been one of nine young men from the state of Washington—farm boys, fishermen, and loggers—who shocked both the rowing world and Adolf Hitler by winning the gold medal in eight-oared rowing at the 1936 Olympics.

When Judy opened the door and ushered me into her cozy living room, Joe was stretched out in a recliner with his feet up, all six foot three of him. He was wearing a gray sweat suit and bright red, down-filled booties. He had a thin white beard. His skin was sallow, his eyes puffy—results of the congestive heart failure from which he was dying. An oxygen tank stood nearby. A fire was popping and hissing in the woodstove. The walls were covered with old family photos. A glass display case crammed with dolls and porcelain horses and rose-patterned china stood against the far wall. Rain flecked a window that looked out into the woods. Jazz tunes from the thirties and forties were playing quietly on the stereo.

Judy introduced me, and Joe offered me an extraordinarily long, thin hand. Judy had been reading one of my books aloud to Joe, and he wanted to meet me and talk about it. As a young man, he had, by extraordinary coincidence, been a friend of Angus Hay Jr.—the son of a person central to the story of that book. So we talked about that for a while. Then the conversation began to turn to his own life.

His voice was reedy, fragile, and attenuated almost to the breaking point. From time to time he faded into silence. Slowly, though, with cautious prompting from his daughter, he began to spin out some of the threads of his life story. Recalling his childhood and his young adulthood during the Great Depression, he spoke haltingly but resolutely about a series of hardships he had endured and obstacles he had overcome, a tale that, as I sat taking notes, at first surprised and then astonished me.

But it wasn’t until he began to talk about his rowing career at the University of Washington that he started, from time to time, to cry. He talked about learning the art of rowing, about shells and oars, about tactics and technique. He reminisced about long, cold hours on the water under steel-gray skies, about smashing victories and defeats narrowly averted, about traveling to Germany and marching under Hitler’s eyes into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, and about his crewmates. None of these recollections brought him to tears, though. It was when he tried to talk about “the boat” that his words began to falter and tears welled up in his bright eyes.

At first I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the racing shell in which he had rowed his way to glory. Or did he mean his teammates, the improbable assemblage of young men who had pulled off one of rowing’s greatest achievements? Finally, watching Joe struggle for composure over and over, I realized that “the boat” was something more than just the shell or its crew. To Joe, it encompassed but transcended both—it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience—a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love. Joe was crying, at least in part, for the loss of that vanished moment but much more, I think, for the sheer beauty of it.

As I was preparing to leave that afternoon, Judy removed Joe’s gold medal from the glass case against the wall and handed it to me. While I was admiring it, she told me that it had vanished years before. The family had searched Joe’s house high and low but had finally given it up as lost. Only many years later, when they were remodeling the house, had they finally found it concealed in some insulating material in the attic. A squirrel had apparently taken a liking to the glimmer of the gold and hidden the medal away in its nest as a personal treasure. As Judy was telling me this, it occurred to me that Joe’s story, like the medal, had been squirreled away out of sight for too long.

I shook Joe’s hand again and told him I would like to come back and talk to him some more, and that I’d like to write a book about his rowing days. Joe grasped my hand again and said he’d like that, but then his voice broke once more and he admonished me gently, “But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.”

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 74 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(46)

4 Star

(14)

3 Star

(10)

2 Star

(3)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 74 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 21, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    If I told you one of the most propulsive reads you will experi



    If I told you one of the most propulsive reads you will experience this year is the non-fiction story of eight rowers and one coxswain training to attend the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, you may not believe me. But you’d need to back up your opinion by reading this book first, and you will thank me for it. Daniel James Brown has done something extraordinary here. We may already know the outcome of that Olympic race, but the pacing is exceptional. Brown juxtaposes descriptions of crew training in Seattle with national races against the IV League in Poughkeepsie; we see developments in a militarizing Germany paired with college competitions in depression-era United States; individual portraits of the “boys” (now dead) are placed alongside cameos of their coaches; he shares details of the early lives of a single oarsman, Joe Rantz, with details of his wife's parallel experiences.

    The 1936 Olympics in Berlin was the stuff of legend, when Jesse Owens swept four gold medals in field and track, but a Washington crew team won that summer also, against great odds. How that victory took place and how a group of great athletes became great competitors is something Daniel James Brown spent five years trying to articulate. Quotes from George Pocock, crafter of cedar shells, head each chapter, sharing his experience watching individual oarsmen become a team.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2013

    As a rower familiar with the '36 Olympics, I was drawn to the bo

    As a rower familiar with the '36 Olympics, I was drawn to the book out of a general interest; but I have to say it is exceptionally well written in how it puts together the characters and tells a story well beyond the world of crew. This book is going to be a best seller. If you have a chance, pick up a great coffee table book about George Pocock: Ready All Row. It sheds even more light on this central character and his accomplishments.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2013

    Highly Recommend-A Must Read

    One of the best books, if not the best, I've read this year.
    High School History teachers should read and recommend this book to their students.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2013

    Inspirational, motivational - All around well written - Great bo

    Inspirational, motivational - All around well written - Great book

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2014

    Love it

    Loved the book....Great insight to the athlete as well as the Coach....In additiin to the historical signifigance tgat was not ignored... must read by rowers and their familiy....

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2013

    A riveting read!  I had no idea of the tough training and total

    A riveting read!  I had no idea of the tough training and total dedication this sport requires of the rowers.
     This biography of  Joe Rantz , one of the rowers, told the incredible story of the very tough life situations he had to 
    overcome from an early age and repeatedly throughout his life.  A very well written book which I highly recommend!  

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2013

    If you row,you'll enjoy this book.

    Skeptical if this book would be worth the read. How do you turn a six minute event into a book worth reading? Brown does, and does it extremely well.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2013

    Wonderful story, wonderfully told

    Wonderful story, wonderfully told. Am in my 3rd season rowing as an adult, with a coach who rowed at Washington, so was interested in the history. But was delighted that the book is more about the rowers and the time. Really enjoyed the author's style, voice and details. Will look for more

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    This is a truly great book. It is filled with rich descriptions.

    This is a truly great book. It is filled with rich descriptions. It is truly inspirational. Two thumbs up.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2013

    A good essay on the sport of rowing.

    A narrative of the development of the Olympic Gold winning crew of 1938. Excellent information on the sport and its intracacies with the depression years' impact on the country and one of the crew as he developed from college freshman crew to the varsity and then, with the crew, the Olympics. The narrative is narrowly focussed upon the topic at hand. I recommend either experience in the sport or an academic interest in it as a prerequisite. Nicely written.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 7, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The 1936 Olympics may be best remembered for Jesse Owens winning

    The 1936 Olympics may be best remembered for Jesse Owens winning gold medals, by nine young men from the University of Washington rowing team also had their moment of Olympic history at those games as well. Their story, from the time they were a rag-tag bunch of college freshmen to a polished team representing America in Nazi Germany, is well-documented in this outstanding book by Daniel James Brown.

    The book is driven by personal stories, especially that of Joe Rentz, a young boy whose father and stepmother abandoned him and his siblings during the Great Depression. Left to fend on his own, Joe was able to keep the family alive and also find a way to the University of Washington, where he was part of a seemingly rag-tag bunch of young men thrown together to form the freshman rowing crew.

    These young men became a team through hard work, camaraderie, excellent coaching, and a lot of perseverance. The research on this team – everything from the results to the coaches to the lives of the young men – is outstanding. Much of the knowledge came from accounts provided by either the team members or their surviving family members. Painstaking detail is written for some of these stories, such as the courtship of Joe and his future wife Joyce, the conditions the team endured in Poughkeepsie during the regatta championships (Washington became the first school to sweep the three events – varsity, junior varsity and freshman), and the experiences they each shared during their time in Berlin at the Olympics.

    The events of the time shaped how this team would be viewed at the Olympics, and the author does a good job of writing about the history of that time without getting too deep. The references made to the rise of the Nazis, the Dust Bowl gripping the country and the effects of the Great Depression all are important to the story but do not take away from the central theme – namely the nine young men from the University of Washington rowing team.

    Every aspect of the book is well researched, well written and told in the proper amount of detail. This was an inspiring tale and a book that kept my interest from beginning to end. An outstanding read that anyone will enjoy.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2013

    Recommend if you enjoy history.

    I became quite connected to the people in this book and really didn't want to put book down. Loved all the historical tidbits, especially since our family are UW graduates and life residents of Washington state.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 21, 2013

    A truly exceptional telling of the coming together of 9 young me

    A truly exceptional telling of the coming together of 9 young men. An engrossing read that involves in you deeply into the life of one of the main characters, Joe Rantz.
    I never expected to be so engrossed in a book about, of all things, crew rowing.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 12, 2014

    Boys in the Boat---How to Build an Effective Team

    Boys in the Boat is probably one of the best nonfiction books I've read to date. Not only does Brown describe in fascinating detail the art of rowing he has also illustrated the way in which one builds an effective team. No one is a star---all members support each other, all are totally focused on the task at hand---in the boat.
    And his poignant story of Joe's personal, painful early life is gently yet bluntly described, illustrating Joe's Incredible drive to survive.
    I would recommend it for those who train teams of all kinds, in the world of sports and in the working world.

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  • Posted April 11, 2014

    Excellent

    There are not enough stars to rate this book. It's off the charts.
    I have read it twice since it came out, and the second reading was as good or better than the first.
    Daniel James Brown crafted a story that compels the reader forward, through the Dust Bowl, the Depression, the Berlin Olympics. He provides rich context for the story of nine young men -- and one especially -- who surmounted many obstacles to achieve their Olympic goal.

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  • Posted April 4, 2014

    Great!

    This was one of the best books we read for our book club. Everyone of us loved it. That does not always happen. It gives an interesting perspective to the 20's and 20's. It is fabulous reading for both men and moment.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2014

    Who knew?

    Fascinating look into a little-known sport and it's impact on the world in a volatile time. I was spellbound!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 25, 2014

    One of the best books I have ever read. Truly a great story. I

    One of the best books I have ever read. Truly a great story. If you liked reading "The Unbroken" you will definitely enjoy this book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 17, 2014

    Excellent Read - Very well written!

    I purchased this book for my husband, who has been rowing for many, many years. It is the talk of the boat house. After listening to excerpts he would read me, I decided to read it myself. It was moving, gripping, sad, funny, informative and one of the best books I've read in a long time. Even if you don't row, you will feel like you are in the boat. Brown's descriptions take you to the venue and make you feel the pain of exertion. And the amazing part is that it is a true story. I highly recommend this book.

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  • Posted January 11, 2014

    The Boys in the Boat

    My 18 year old Granddaughter loved it. She was in Crew all through High School. She is now on Princeton's varsity Crew.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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