In my Seattle writing classes, I like to emphasize how to write nonfiction that exhibits the drama and depth of a great novel. I recently read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, a nonfiction book that serves as a fine example of this genre. The book is a meticulously researched account of the University of Washington rowing team who competed at the 1936 Olympics. The author met one of the team members, Joe Rantz, who lived nearby. By that time Joe was an old man, but he remembered well the experience of rowing for the Husky crew and of competing in the Olympics. He talked about the magic of being a part of “the boat” and what it meant to him and the other young men.
Brown realized that he had a story. He went back and interviewed Rantz as well as his daughter Judy. Slowly, the story began to materialize. This is a strategy I discuss in my Seattle writing classes, especially my fall writing class, Revising Your Life.
Brown organizes the book around Rantz and the other team members. Rantz is an especially appealing character, who struggled in his personal life, abandoned by his family. He had to make a living for himself during the Great Depression as well as compete for the crew team to make sure he kept his scholarship to the University of Washington.
Brown researched the book so he could add scenes of Joe’s early life in the Puget Sound area and the excitement of joining the crew team and competing with some of the best crews in the country and eventually the world. Drawing on journals, newspaper articles, and interviews, Brown weaves a compelling narrative about Joe and the other team members who shocked the world with their grit, tenacity and brilliance.
The books builds slowly toward the climatic scenes near the end, where the competition intensifies and Joe and the others have to dig deep to realize their dreams. The ending is especially moving, conjuring up a world now lost in time. The books is nostalgic in the best sense, reminding us of a moment of honor and selfless achievement that could easily be forgotten, but is lifted to permanent life by Brown’s extraordinary book.