A Lotta Buzz About One Boat That’s Not Even Here

Daniel James Brown has found a lot of news reporters interested in his story.

 

Author Dan Brown Tells the Story About Writing the Story of The Boys in the Boat

By Jessica Mendoza | Published on October 19, 2013

Author Daniel James Brown knew he had a story the day he first heard the remarkable tale of nine boys from the University of Washington who rowed against all odds to win the gold in the 1936 Olympics.

The Boys in the Boat describes one crew’s unlikely journey as a team: the years they spent as underdogs in the eyes of America’s elite rowing clubs, their victories in the country’s most prestigious races, and their ultimate triumph in the face of Adolf Hitler’s early Nazi Germany.

The book also reveals the boys as individuals, showing, by way of detailed anecdotes and journal entries, the thoughts and feelings of each as they fought to survive in Depression-era Seattle.

The story combines a gruff, “hard work pays off” mentality with the feeling that destiny, when it decides to play its hand, can be unstoppable.

Fate also seemed to figure in the telling of the tale. For over 75 years, the families of the crewmembers collected letters, journals, photographs and video recordings, and packed them away in boxes that grew dusty with age, waiting for the right person to bring their stories to life.

One day in 2007, Brown’s neighbor Judy Willman knocked on his door and asked if he could meet her father, Joe Rantz, a member of that crew. Willman said Rantz had enjoyed some of Brown’s earlier work.

“The day I met Joe, I knew it was a really good story,” said Brown, sitting at a cocktail table in a tent beside the Cambridge Boat Club, headquarters of the annual Head of the Charles Regatta. At this point, The Boys in the Boat has spent 11 weeks on the top 20 of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. A movie is in the works.

“When I was talking to him, Joe was tearing up all the time, so I knew there was a lot of heart and a lot of emotion there,” Brown said, recalling the months he spent with the aging Rantz.

But Brown said what really convinced him to write the book was learning how those nine blue-collar college kids, most of whom had never rowed a lick in their lives, came together as a crew to defeat not only the best schools in the United States for a place in the Olympics, but also the greatest rowing teams in the world.

“I just wanted to do justice to the story,” said Brown. Rantz had died shortly after he began the project – the last of the crewmembers to go.

“That really motivated me to get it right and do honor to these guys,” he said.

It was a herculean task.

Brown became the willing recipient of a flood of memories from all nine families. Willman, for her part, had spent a lifetime collecting the bits and pieces of her father’s story. After Rantz passed, Willman helped Brown fill in the personal feelings and private thoughts that bring the book to life.

“There was just a huge outpouring of anecdotes, reminiscences, and recollections from when they were growing up, the stories their parents had told them. Or their grandpa,” said Brown.

Then there was the sport of rowing itself, which Brown knew almost nothing about. He began “hanging out at the shell house at the University of Washington,” talking to crewmembers. He reached out to rowers across the country. He met with Stan, son of George Pocock, who was second only to coach Al Ulbrickson as a key figure in the Washington crew’s victory.

Pocock’s skill at designing and building racing shells was matched only by his deep wisdom about the sport, and quotes by him begin every chapter of the book – a detail that readers love, said Brown.

The more Brown learned about rowing, the more he came to appreciate it.

“It struck me as really strange at first, because I think my initial impression was rowing was pretty boring,” he said. “(But) it intrigued me as I talked to all these rowers how passionate they were about it. And that drew me in.”

Another of the book’s cast of characters that ensnared Brown was the Great Depression. As he did with the sport of rowing, Brown immersed himself in the era, spending days at the University of Washington’s Suzzella Library, “poring over microfilm copies of Seattle newspapers from the 1930s.”

He read about the shows in town, sporting events, political issues, until “in my head I was living in Seattle in 1933, ’34, ’35.”

Nor did Brown stop there. To get a better feel for Germany in the years leading up to World War II, he spent a week in Berlin, visiting the Olympic stadium and the rowing course at Grunau. He went to museums and read half a dozen books about the Third Reich, all “so when the story lines come together at the end, you sense that it matters a lot whether this American boat beats this German boat or not.”

In the end, the Washington boys had to fight tooth and nail against unfavorable winds, an even worse position on the racecourse, and a stroke oarsman who was battling pneumonia even as the crew crossed the finish line.

It was another in a series of instances where determination was buoyed by destiny.

“Basically it just fell together…and it really did feel extraordinarily serendipitous,” Brown said. He was talking about the events that led up to his writing the book, but the same could be said about the journey of the boys aboard that historic boat.

The book’s success has propelled Brown across the country to attend signings and give talks about teamwork to staff at companies like Microsoft and BNY Mellen. Earlier this year, The Weinstein Company, which produced the Academy Award-winning “The King’s Speech,” bought the movie rights for the book.

But Brown finds his greatest satisfaction in having spread the word about the sport of rowing. He said that the rowers he’d spoken to over the course of his research “almost universally” felt that their sport has been neglected.

He feels privileged to be a voice for the rowing community, and particularly for the families of Don Hume, Bobby Moch, George “Shorty” Hunt, Jim “Stub” McMillin, Roger Morris, Gordon Adam, Chuck Day, John White, Jr. and Joe Rantz, the boys in the boat.

“The best part for me was actually finishing and handing the book out to these nine families,” said Brown of the project that began six years ago, when he first met Rantz. “They were just, and still are, so excited about it and so proud to have this story told.

“There were lots of tears.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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