Another major theme of The Boys in the Boat is class, and particularly the conflict between different socioeconomic classes. The book takes place during the Great Depression, an era when the collapse of the stock market and the decline of industry threatened to wipe out the middle class. Many families that had never wanted for food were thrust into poverty for the first time. At a school such as the University of Washington, where the book is set, the divide between the wealthiest and the poorest Americans was particularly stark. Some of the university’s students had never worked a day in their lives, while others, such as Joe Rantz, could only be university students because they’d previously been working full-time jobs. Through the character of Joe Rantz, Daniel James Brown studies the bullying and discrimination that working-class Americans often have to endure, and how some Americans succeeded in overcoming their persecution.
At the University of Washington, Joe encountered endless class discrimination. He came from a poor family, and he had to support himself since the age of fifteen, often working full-time just to feed himself and put a roof over his head. On the other hand, some of his classmates came from wealthy families, and had no experience working for a living. They teased Joe for his frumpy clothing, his unpolished manners, and other things that signified his working-class roots. Joe was particularly conscious of the divide between upper-class and working-class as a member of the university rowing team. Traditionally, rowing is one of the most elitist, exclusive sports, available only for those who can afford to buy boats or pay membership at elite athletic clubs. Thus, when he tried out for the team as a freshmen, Joe drew snickers from other, wealthier rowing hopefuls.
Over the course of the book, however, Joe and his working-class teammates fought back against class discrimination in a few different ways. To begin with, Joe came to understand that he wasn’t alone in his working-class roots; indeed, most of the other talented underclassman rowers hailed from relatively poor families, and had to work for a living. Thus, Joe developed strong friendships with his teammates, based on their talents but also their common heritage. In doing so, Joe and his friends challenged the old stereotype that crew was a “rich man’s sport.” Most basically of all, however, Joe and his friends fought against classism simply by being better than anyone else. As Joe went through college, winning impressive rowing titles, his wealthier peers teased him less and less; indeed, he became a citywide hero because of his talents. (Of course, this optimistic theme then has a darker side to it—that less privileged people have to be better-than-average just to be considered the equals of their more privileged peers.)
The book further suggests that Joe became a great rower because of his working-class roots; in rowing, he found the perfect outlet for his toughness, his focus, and his ability to withstand pain. Not only did he try out for the richest, most elitist sport on campus; he found ways of turning his poor, decidedly non-elite origins into a major advantage when he played the sport. In the end, The Boys in the Boat tells an optimistic, inspiring story about class in America. Even if few Americans are as talented as Joe and his teammates, they can use their ambition, talent, and determination to find success, defying the entitled bullies who tell them they’ll never amount to anything.
Class Quotes in The Boys in the Boat
And perhaps that was the worst of it. Whether you were a banker or a baker, a homemaker or homeless, it was with you night and day—a terrible, unrelenting uncertainty about the future, a feeling that the ground could drop out from under you for good at any moment.
It didn’t help that [Joe Rantz] continued to feel like everyone’s poor cousin. With the weather remaining cool, he still had to wear his ragged sweater to practice almost every day, and the boys still teased him continuously for it.
For the most part, though, they stayed in Grand Coulee, where they could toss a football around in the sagebrush, chuck rocks off the edges of the cliffs, bask shirtless on stone ledges in the warm morning sun, sit bleary-eyed in the smoke around a campfire at night telling ghost stories as coyotes yelped in the distance, and generally act like the teenagers they actually were—free and easy boys, cut loose in the wide expanse of the western desert.
In the white-hot emotional furnace of those final meters at Grünau, Joe and the boys had finally forged the prize they had sought all season, the prize Joe had sought nearly all his life. Now he felt whole. He was ready to go home.