A chance meeting with a dying man next door created a literary sensation for Redmond author Daniel James Brown.
It started out as a little book about rowing. “The Boys in the Boat” chronicled how a hardscrabble crew from Washington state overcame bitter rival Cal and then stroked all the way to a 1936 Olympics gold medal in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin.
Then something curious happened. The book by Daniel James Brown got big. Best-seller big. So big, in fact, that Hollywood now has plans for this hidden gem of Depression-era history that had faded over the decades until Brown unearthed the tale.
“The story reminded me of an America that climbed into a boat and learned to pull together so powerfully and so beautifully,” said Brown, who taught writing at San Jose State and Stanford before relocating to Redmond. “They were just a perfect metaphor for that generation.”
The 2013 book has been such a word-of-mouth sensation that the current generation of rowers says it has renewed interest in their grueling, graceful sport, which rarely receives much publicity. It has also brought added attention to the decades-old rivalry between the country’s two best crews.
Most Read Sports Stories
- Will Conroy showcases coaching transformation by guiding UW men to win as acting head coach
- Superstar Breanna Stewart leaving Seattle in free agency would send the Storm back to mediocrity
- John Stockton’s defiance of COVID-19 mask mandate forces Gonzaga to suspend Hall of Famer’s season tickets
- Mariners position overview: Jarred Kelenic wasn't meant to be the everyday center fielder, but it's a role he'll have to embrace
- Mariners mailbag: What could M's get for Taylor Trammell, Luis Torrens or Jake Fraley in a trade?
The ripples of time will lap against the shells on Seattle’s Montlake Cut this weekend as the University of Washington and UC Berkeley — the schools central to Brown’s narrative — meet in a showdown for the 104th time. The 2,000-meter race is a tangible link to a bygone era when the regatta would be broadcast live on radio and draw 40,000 spectators to the Oakland Estuary and twice that many in rowing-mad Seattle.
“When you read ‘Boys in the Boat,’ that’s an American story,” said Craig Amerkhanian, a former Cal standout who now coaches Stanford. “It’s OK to suffer. It’s OK to work hard. It’s OK to be exhausted. That’s why our sport is as important today as ever — because these are strong lessons and part of the fabric of our country.”
But this book never would have happened without a series of fortuitous coincidences that connected a writer who knew nothing about rowing with the story’s hero just before he died.
In 2007, Brown was living in the Seattle area and making a name for himself as an author of historical nonfiction. A neighbor just happened to be reading his first book to her father, Joe Rantz, who at 93 was in the end stage of hospice care at her home. Rantz had been friends with the son of a main character in “Under a Flaming Sky” — based on a Brown family story about the 1894 firestorm that destroyed a Minnesota town and claimed the life of the author’s great-grandfather. Rantz’s daughter asked Brown to visit with her dad. As they talked, the writer was captivated when Rantz told his life story.
Even by grim Depression standards, Rantz had endured a dirt-poor childhood where he largely was abandoned by family because “there were just too many mouths to feed.” But he persevered, worked his way into the University of Washington and once there bonded with other up-by-their-bootstraps lads to form a perfect synchronicity in the rowing shell.
“I committed to this book the first day that I met him,” said Brown, 63, who attended Diablo Valley College and Cal. “But you never know what you’re going to find once you start digging. It could have been Joe and eight jerks in a boat for all I knew.”
It wasn’t. After months of research — Rantz had since died — Brown had rediscovered a forgotten slice of Americana. The Husky Clipper shell had been manned by nine genuinely humble young men who raised the country’s morale during the hardest of times by overcoming incredible odds.
After vanquishing mighty Cal, which had won the 1928 and 1932 Olympic titles, the Washington rowers found themselves in the middle of a high-stakes drama. The Berlin Games were less about sport than competing political philosophies.
Sprinter Jesse Owens is remembered for dashing the Nazis’ belief of racial superiority with his four gold medals. But the surrogate battle between democracy and fascism also played out on the crew course, where the Americans prevailed over the German team in thrilling fashion — right in front of a glowering Hitler.
Brown’s book deftly taps a deep well of nostalgia for a time when the nation, while overwhelmed with abject poverty, showed a stubborn unwillingness to quit in the face of adversity. While the story is gripping, it still is about rowing. After the launch party drew hundreds in Seattle, the first book tour stop outside of Chicago attracted just four people.
“Then, it got bigger and bigger,” Brown said. “It was a slow burn kind of thing. There are a lot more rowers out there than we ever dreamed of. And rowers have moms and dads, and they have book clubs. It just grew organically and took a trajectory of its own.”
It has been anchored to The New York Times paperback best-seller list for almost a year, selling a total of 1.5 million copies. A film script is being developed for a period piece in the tradition of “Seabiscuit” and “Chariots of Fire.”
Nobody is more thrilled about the book’s success than today’s crew community. As collegiate teams gathered at Redwood Shores for the recent Stanford Invitational, rowing enthusiasts eagerly talked about how the book has shined a spotlight on their sport.
“It has been great exposure,” said Michael Callahan, the coach of the Washington rowing team that has won the last four national titles. “But it’s also personal for us. We all knew Joe Rantz.”
The freshman classes still shave their heads in memory of the ‘36 rowers who started the tradition after winning the gold medal. The book adds to the weight of the legacy they carry.
“There is some gravity to it,” Callahan said.
Brown knows the feeling. His creation has made him a keeper of rowing’s history. He will miss Saturday’s regatta, known simply as the Dual, because of a book-related speaking engagement.
Perhaps he will discuss how Rantz insisted that the story not center on him, but rather “The Boat” — the mystical way nine individuals could become one, and a sum greater than its parts.
This weekend will be no different, nearly eight decades later. Rivals from Cal and Washington once again will climb into their boats, plunge oars into the water and pull in harmony with a unified strength.