In his bestselling nonfiction narrative The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown vividly retells the 1936 University of Washington crew team’s journey to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. The rowers won gold against all expectations, disproving the skeptics both home and abroad. While Brown’s story focuses on Joe Rantz, a rower who bravely overcame many struggles, The Boys in the Boat emphasizes the nearly insurmountable odds, most notably poverty and prejudice, faced by all of its resourceful and uncomplaining young characters. Brown clearly recounts the difficult decisions that confronted young adults during the Depression.
Most of the crew team members rowed because the university gave student-athletes work study jobs, and many worked dangerous jobs during the school year and summer, including building the Grand Coulee Dam. The rowers' story is truly a David versus Goliath tale. The boys' struggles were in harsh contrast to the lives of their Ivy-League competitors, who enjoyed financial security despite the nationwide depression.
Brown intersperses the boys' stories with scenes from Nazi Germany’s preparations for the 1936 Olypmics, an event carefully orchestrated to obscure the Nazi regime’s humanitarian abuses and present an appealing facade to the world. He shows the importance of German athletic glory to the Nazi party’s propaganda and racist ideology. In particular, Brown focuses these sections on the work of Leni Riefenstahl, the director of Olympia, a documentary that glorified the Nazis while documenting the Olympics.
The Boys in the Boat not only received critical acclaim but also renewed public interest in its characters and their lives. It inspired the 2016 PBS American Experience documentary The Boys of ’36. It is also slated to be adapted into a movie.