Regular readers of my newsletter will remember the post I wrote when I started reading the 800+ page novel, The Goldfinch, several months ago – and I finally finished the book!! I didn’t love the ending the way I wanted to, but I was so blown away by the characterizations and the story and the masterful writing that I forgave Donna Tartt. I learned so much about how to sneak body language and thought into dialogue from her, and I thoroughly enjoyed the epic read.
After that art history/drug/obsessive love tour de force, I wanted to read something totally different, so I picked up The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. My niece was a two time NCAA champion rower at Yale, and because of my river-running dad, I spent a lot of my youth at the oars of a boat (of a different kind, but still…) so I was interested in the topic of this book. I did not expect it to be a brilliantly conceived and written story with a treasure trove of fantastic lessons for writers, but it is indeed all of those things. Here are the top seven take-aways:
1. Write a catchy, evocative, rhythmically pleasing title. The Boys in the Boat makes me think of titles like A Few Good Men, or Band of Brothers. You get a feeling of camaraderie and sacrifice and glory before you even know what it’s about. It has that fantastic alliteration and a rhythm that makes it roll off the tongue. The subtitle drives home the themes hinted at in the title. It’s Americans in the boat, they are on a quest, it is going to be epic – and oh yes, it’s 1936 in Berlin, and suddenly this means something bigger than just a race, because that’s the eve of the war, it’s the Depression in America and the guy directing the games is Hitler. I wanted to read this book before I even cracked the cover.
2. Choose a protagonist to carry the emotional heart of the story. You would expect this advice for fiction, but this is historical non-fiction and it still holds. It would be easy to say, “Well it’s Hitler, it’s the war, it’s the Olympics and that’s enough to carry the story.” It’s not enough. The reader wants to root for someone, wants to get inside his head and his skin and know what he wants and what he fears. Brown very wisely gives us such a protagonist, by putting one young man, Joe Rantz, at the very center of his story. Rantz is, as the jacket says, “a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world.” We follow Joe down to the docks, into the shells, onto the river. When he goes searching for his girl on the ferryboat full of students who have come to cheer on their crew, we can’t breathe until he finds her. We’re that invested in him – and the Olympics are still three years away.
Brown had access to journals, diaries, news clippings and film from many of the rowers, but he’d had this one particularly touching moment with Joe Rantz – the moment he knew that he had to tell this story – and the story was always going to be Joe’s. You can feel that intention on every single page of the book, and the impact is powerful. You want what Joe wants so badly you can almost taste it – which means that a.) you know what Joe wants and b.) the author has made you feel it.
3. Allow the supporting cast to come to life, too. Once Brown put Rantz at the center of his story, it would have been easy to let the other characters fade into the background. Brown did not do this. The coach is a fully formed character who we come to know and love, as is his rival, as are the other boys in Joe’s boat, as is the master boat builder whose shells were the most coveted boats in the water at the time. You can practically smell the cedar being bent in the workshop as this wise craftsman plies his trade, and in one scene, he comes down from his shop to impart some rowing wisdom to Joe – and it’s a moment that turns out to change everything. It would not have had the power it does if Brown had not allowed the boat builder to be so richly drawn.
4. Structuring a book is a creative act. The structure of this book is a work of art. Brown moves back and forth from Nazi Germany, where a dark revolution is brewing, to the Seattle, Washington campus, where a group of freshman boys is learning to row, and he does so with an organic ease. It’s not a set pattern that he jams his story into. It’s a structure that guides the work and contains it. Brown uses this structure so masterfully that when he pulls away from one of these two venues to take you somewhere else -- to the docks of a rival shell, or to chronicle the devastating effects of a winter blizzard or a dust storm -- you go with him, confident that there is a reason he is taking you somewhere new, confident that you will come back to one of the two main story lines . It feels like you are being led by a guide who knows exactly what he wants you to see and exactly what he wants you to feel. You just know he’s not going to head off and talk about something for the hell of it. Every single paragraph is there for a reason, and you begin to trust it, to depend on it. It’s pure reading pleasure.
If you are writing anything that involves multiple threads or plots or concepts, get this book and study how Brown does it.
5. Culture and environment are part of the story, too. There is no way you can read this book and not be swept into post-Depression America in all its struggle and agony. Brown draws a clear distinction throughout the book between the working class boys rowing for the University of Washington and the elite boys rowing for the old-line institutions on the East coast. He does so with incredibly detailed descriptions of what people eat and what they wear on their backs. You feel the class difference as if it’s a visceral thing. He also describes the dust bowl migrations, the dirty, harrowing government work on the Grand Coulee dam, the long, seasick journey across the ocean on a boat carrying the entire U.S. Olympic team into Nazi Germany, the cold, calculated way that Hitler and Goebbels were masterminding what the world would see when they arrived in Berlin. This is not just a story about a boat race – not by a long shot – and it’s one of the fundamental reasons the book is so successful.
6. Teach us something. Did you know that a successful crew race entails 2,400 perfectly executed strokes of the oar? Or that the guy who sits in the stroke seat – the first seat –transmits the stroke count to the eight guys behind him simply through body language? Or that cedar is one of the only kinds of wood whose individual fibers have the necessary strength and resilience to be forced into a new form and hold it forever? Or that 18-year-old college kids were hired for some of the most dangerous work in the building of the Grand Coulee dam? Me neither. But I know all that now. Good books might entertain or inform, but great books do both.
7. Write beautiful sentences. Beauty in writing is frosting on the cake of a good story – but frosting can be so pleasurable. Here is one tiny example from this book. Joe goes up to the boat builder’s workshop to learn about rowing and life.
“As Pocock talked, Joe grew mesmerized. It wasn’t just what the Englishman was saying, or the soft, earthy cadence of his voice, it was the calm reverence with which he talked about the wood – as if there was something holy and sacred about it – that drew Joe in. The wood, Pocock murmured, taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves. About the reasons we were all here.”