Daniel James Brown says that he began writing The Boys in the Boat shortly after learning about his neighbor, a man named Joe Rantz. When Brown met Joe for the first time, Joe was in his mid-seventies, but still in extraordinarily good shape. Brown knew that Joe had been one of the nine young men from Washington state who won a gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
When Brown began writing his book, Joe Rantz, the book’s protagonist, was still alive. As a result, Brown had the opportunity to interview Rantz for many hours and gain invaluable insight into Rantz’s memories of rowing in the 1936 Olympics.
One afternoon, Brown came to visit Joe Rantz, and Joe’s daughter Judy answered the door. Joe wasn’t doing well; his heart was failing, and he could barely breathe. Nevertheless, he spoke with Brown for a long time, discussing his childhood, his experiences in the Great Depression, and his lifelong love for rowing. When he mentioned “the boat,” he began to cry. Later, Brown came to understand that, when Joe spoke of the boat, he meant not only the literal boat in which he and his teammates competed, but also the “shared experience” of rowing with his friends, “bound together forever by pride and respect and love.”
One of the key themes of the book is the importance of teamwork and connecting with other people. Rowing is one of the most cooperative sports—the eight oarsmen have to row in perfect or near-perfect unison; therefore, as Joe suggests, a good crew team will feel a sense of total unity.
As Brown prepared to leave, Judy mentioned that her father’s medal had disappeared for years—a squirrel had stolen it and placed it in the attic. Brown realized that, like his medal, Joe’s story had been hidden for far too long. Inspired, Brown told Joe that he wanted to write about his life, to which Joe replied, “But not just about me. It has to be about the boat.”
In writing this book, Brown will not only tell a fascinating story about America and Germany in the 1930s; he’ll also shed some light on a neglected hero of American sports. However, the book is about Joe’s teammates, and the respect and love that bound them together, not just Joe by himself.