Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat is published on June 4, 2013.

  • By Antonia Rath
  • Posted 11/16/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11145

On June 4, 2013, Viking Penguin publishes The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown (b. 1951). With Spokane native Joe Rantz (1914-2007) at the center of the story, Brown's nonfiction narrative brings to life the triumph of the University of Washington eight-oar rowing team at the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany. The hardcover release is the book's first publication. Penguin will publish a paperback edition in 2014 and will release a Young Readers Adaptation the following year.

A San Francisco Bay area native, Daniel James Brown attended Diablo Valley College, the University of California at Berkeley, and UCLA. After completing his formal education, Brown taught writing at San Jose University and Stanford University. Eventually he moved to Washington with his wife and worked as a technical editor and writer for Microsoft. After around 12 years at Microsoft, Brown left and began a fulltime career writing narrative nonfiction books. Prior to The Boys in the Boat, Brown published two other award-winning titles, Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 in May 2006 and The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride in April 2009.

Introduced to Joe Rantz

Brown was first introduced to the momentous yet under-documented history of "the boys in the boat" as result of a brief discussion with a neighbor, who at the time he knew simply as Judy. Nearly six years before Brown's history of the 1936 UW rowing team was published, Judy Willman (b. 1943) asked Brown if he was interested in meeting her father, Joe Rantz, who was nearing the end of his life and living with her under hospice care.

This meeting with Rantz -- a meeting that Brown thought would be a normal introduction -- soon became a source of inspiration. Prior to their meeting, Brown knew that Rantz had won an Olympic medal. However, it was not until after Rantz relayed accounts of his upbringing and his experiences winning a gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics that Brown knew he needed to capture this story. Brown, who has described his "primary interest" in writing as "bringing compelling historical events to life as vividly and accurately as I can" ("About"), understood that by telling Joe Rantz's life story he could produce a compelling narrative that would couple captivating personal accounts with a rich local history. However, when Brown asked if he could write a story about Joe, Joe responded that Brown could write a book about the boat. Brown soon knew that this response meant:

"the physical boat, plus all those boys who had been in it, and what they had done ... what they all had become that summer 75 years before in Berlin. The almost perfect thing that they had become, that unified, breathing, single thing that a great crew is" ("Whatcom Reads").

Researching the History of the Boys in the Boat

Brown spent the next four years doing research on the medal-winning University of Washington rowers -- Roger Morris (bow seat), Charles Day (No. 2 seat), Gordon Adam (No. 3), John White (No. 4), Jim "Stub" McMillin (No. 5 seat), George "Shorty" Hunt (No. 6 seat), Joe Rantz (No. 7), Don Hume (stroke), and Bob Moch (coxswain) -- a group he described as the "sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers from the American West ... who defeated successive echelons of privilege and power" ("The Boys in the Boat," Daniel James Brown website).

In order to fully capture the historical event, Brown made certain that his research was extensive and far reaching. While the story entails much more than rowing, Brown needed to have a working knowledge of the sport. He researched the history of rowing in general and at UW in particular, and visited the site of the 1936 victory to become familiar with the rowing facilities at Grunau.

Composing a narrative with the Great Depression as a backdrop, Brown delved into sources that portrayed the condition of Seattle and the United States during the 1930s. He said in an interview:

"I think this story of these nine young men who climbed in a boat and learned to pull together so beautifully and so powerfully is an almost perfect metaphor for what that whole generation of Americans did. They were the generation that was humbled by the Great Depression and they learned to pull together and build great teams and get great things done" (Baker, "Bestselling ...").

In addition, Brown researched Nazi Germany and its propaganda machine, most notably the visible presence of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) at the Olympic Games.

Most importantly, however, Brown delved into the personal lives of the nine rowers. To do so, he read diaries of the rowers, listened to the recollections and reminiscences of family members, and relied on those early personal accounts he heard from Joe Rantz. Along with the nine young men, Brown's story involved Alvin M. "Al" Ulbrickson (1903-1980), the varsity coach of the UW rowing team, a position he held for 32 years, as well as George Yeoman Pocock (1891-1976), the world-renowned boat builder who was recruited in 1912 to build shells for the UW rowing team. Pocock built the Husky Clipper that would skim across the water in Germany to gain victory for the United States, and the University of Washington, at the 1936 Olympic Games.

Award-winning Account

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was published on June 4, 2013, by Viking Penguin, part of the Penguin Random House publishing conglomerate. Penguin published a paperback edition on May 27, 2014, and released a Young Readers Adaptation (The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team's Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics) on September 8, 2015.

The book received many awards, including a 2014 Washington State Book Award for placing first in the "General Nonfiction" category; was listed among the ABA's 2014 "Indie's Choice" nonfiction books of the year; and spent more than a year on the New York Times Bestseller List. In 2015 Brown was among five recipients of Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards, receiving the award in the Creative Industries category.

Sources: Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (New York: Viking, 2013); "About," Daniel James Brown website accessed November 9, 2015 (http://www.danieljamesbrown.com/about/); "The Boys in the Boat," Daniel James Brown website accessed November 9, 2015 (http://www.danieljamesbrown.com/books/the-boys-in-the-boat/); "The Boys in the Boat," Penguin website accessed November 9, 2015 (http://www.penguin.com/book/the-boys-in-the-boat-by-daniel-james-brown/9780670025817); "Maryville Talks Books -- A Book of Treasures: One on One with Daniel James Brown," video, HEC-TV website accessed November 9, 2015 (http://www.hectv.org/watch/maryville-talks-books/15118-2/15118/); "Judy Willman," Winning Writers website accessed November 9, 2015 (https://winningwriters.com/people/judy-willman); "Whatcom Reads! The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown," video of talk, February 25, 2015, Mount Baker Theatre, Bellingham, YouTube website accessed November 10, 2015 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inUAuVdRnV4); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Pocock, George Yeoman (1891-1976): Seattle's Master Racing-shell Builder" (by Daryl B. McClary) and "University of Washington rowing crew wins Olympic gold medal on August 14, 1936" (by Greg Lange), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 16, 2015); "Mayor Announces 2015 Mayor's Arts Awards Recipients," Seattle Office of Arts and Culture website accessed November 9, 2015 (http://murray.seattle.gov/mayor-announces-2015-mayors-arts-awards-recipients/#sthash.jZaX240s.NjwfZSH0.dpbs); Craig S. Baker, "Bestselling Non-Fiction Author Daniel James Brown Has Done It All Without Rushing," May 22, 2015, Craig S. Baker website accessed November 10, 2015 (http://craigsbaker.com/2015/05/22/bestselling-non-fiction-author-daniel-james-brown-has-done-it-all-without-rushing-things/); Joseph Sutton-Holcomb, "Q & A: Daniel James Brown on 'The Boys in the Boat,'" The Seattle Times, June 10, 2013 (http://www.seattletimes.com/); "No Ordinary Joe," Sequim Gazette, June 13, 2013 (http://www.sequimgazette.com/entertainment/251964411.html).

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