Every once in a while, a book comes along that fills in a gap – in time, in place, in style. Boys in the Boat did that for me. I knew little about Washington State and the time between the wars has always been that for me – the time between the wars.
I loved the way that Brown gets out of the way of the narrative. He knows he’s got a great story, and he just lays it out for us.
My one complaint is the connection between structure and pacing. In The Devil and the White City, for example, Erik Larson is able to create momentum that propels the two narratives together. Brown has different challenges. He has to bring the characters (including people, time and place) together before he can start moving the story forward. And he does this well – balancing a wide array of characters and making them quite vivid. But he seems at a loss about how to bring the rise of Hitler into the plot. A few times, updates come at the end of the chapter and have a sort of, “Meanwhile, on the other side of the world” quality. It has the effect of saying that things are happening, looming, but they are in another place. But that seems right. From what I understand, so many Americans were unaware (just as so many Americans thought of rowing as a strictly Eastern sport). As the book continued, though, it was hard to discern a method behind Brown’s decisions about how to update the rise of the Nazis. His main point seems to be about image vs. reality, which is essential to understanding the world’s glacial response (shame on you, Mr. Brundage).
In the wake of Hillenbrand’s books Seabiscuit and Unbroken and their movie versions, I think it’s fair to say that not only is this a better book than Unbroken, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a movie version. American movies like solo heroes. And the point of this story, though it centers on one member of the crew, is about a team.