The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

by Daniel James Brown

Hardcover, 2013

Call number




Viking (2013), Edition: First Edition, 416 pages


History. Sports & Recreations. Nonfiction. HTML:The #1 New York Times??bestselling story about American Olympic triumph in Nazi Germany and now the inspiration for the PBS documentary "The Boys of '36"For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times??the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant. It was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington's eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, 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. Drawing on the boys' own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man's personal quest. From the Trade Paperback edition… (more)

Media reviews

In “The Boys on the Boat,” Daniel James Brown tells the astonishing story of the UW’s 1936 eight-oar varsity crew and its rise from obscurity to fame, drawing on interviews with the surviving members of the team and their diaries, journals and photographs. A writer and former writing teacher
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at Stanford and San Diego, Brown lives outside of Seattle, where one of his elderly neighbors harbored a history Brown never imagined: he was Joe Rantz, one of the members of the iconic UW 1936 crew.
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[Daniel James] Brown's book juxtaposes the coming together of the Washington crew team against the Nazis' preparations for the [1936 Berlin Olympic] Games, weaving together a history that feels both intimately personal and weighty in its larger historical implications. This book has already been
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bought for cinematic development, and it's easy to see why: When Brown, a Seattle-based nonfiction writer, describes a race, you feel the splash as the oars slice the water, the burning in the young men's muscles and the incredible drive that propelled these rowers to glory.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Beamis12
If someone had told me I would become emotionally invested is a book about rowing, I would have though they were crazy. First, I knew little about rowing and second, I had no desire to learn. A read for a group I am in had me picking up this book and I am so glad I did. As many mothers have said,
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try it before you decode you don't like it.

An amazing balance of human interest, history and sport. Joe Rantz's story had my mothers heart wanting to give his ten year old self a big hug. His story and the man he became is simply heart breaking and admirable. He and the other boys wormed their way under my skin and I found myself holding my breath more than once during their races.

The book went back and forth between the US and Germany. The snow job they pulled on the world during the Olympics, convincing many others that they were a progressive and fair nation. There were small moments of humor too, as when the German people greeted our athletes with a raised arm and shouted, Heil, Hitler, our athletes raised their arms and answered back, "Heil, Roosevelt.

The sport of course took up much of the book from the scull maker, Popcock to the coach, Al Ubrickson. The hard work that went into training, and of course the races, competitions between the East and West coast. The lives of the men in the boat and what happened to them after.

All in all I found this a stirring read, a wonderful book.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
The final chapters of this book are so poignant, so clutchingly exciting, that one forgets about the fact that much of the earlier part of the book is cloying and over-written. It is the story of the rowing team from the University of Washington which in 1936 won a gold medal at the Berlin
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Olympics. The author has researched the story well, even though as I read the earlier chapters I wished that he had toned down some of the flights of enthusiasm or dolorousness he sometimes indulges in..
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
Oh, bite me. I don't give a crap about crew - who in the book club recommended this title?

That was my reaction before reading the book, but holy hell, what a story. It's about the legendary 1936 Olympic rowing team from the University of Washington, comprised mainly of "uncouth" working class boys
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who were more or less scorned by the privileged students of the elite eastern schools. Against-all-odds victories always make for a good read, but the story of crew member Joe Rantz takes the cake, who as a teenager was literally abandoned by his family and had to forage for food.

Of course, the 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin. While we're learning about the crew members, their coaches, and possibly the best boat maker in the world, we also learn about how the Nazis viewed the event as perfect propaganda for their Aryan paradise. They cleansed the city of the most obvious anti-semitism and hired infamous Leni Riefenstahl to film the monstrous film Olympia. Oh, and they clearly tried to rig the rowing competition by changing the rules and giving the Americans the worst lane.

A couple quibbles. I don't like hagiography, and would have preferred a more warts-and-all portrayal of the athletes. I would have liked a more thorough discussion of decision to participate in the 1946 Nazi-fest at all. And I would have liked a more complete picture of Joe Rantz's stepmother Thula, who in this book is a stepmother straight out of fairy tales and is just too despicable to be believed.
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LibraryThing member terran
This was definitely one of my favorite books of 2013. It is non-fiction, but reads so easily and contains so many actual twists of fate that in many cases I felt that truth IS stranger than fiction. The University of Washington men's rowing team is at the center of the book: the rowers themselves
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and their back stories and how the Great Depression formed and influenced them. I learned so many historical details that were told to illustrate the personal impact they had on the main characters. We all studied the Great Depression, but have we been told the stories of how families dealt with the crushing events? I never felt I was "slogging through" but was excited to read about real people and real situtations.
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LibraryThing member techeditor
Although its subtitle implies that THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is about the American eight-oar rowing crew in the 1936 Olympics, the book is more than that. It's mostly about what led to the formation of the crew. Also, the story is made personal by its concentration on one of the boys, Joe Rantz.

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BOYS IN THE BOAT was fiction, I wouldn't have enjoyed it. That's because the whole thing is so unlikely: Joe overcame such odds in his personal life. None of the boys came from money when they suddenly emerged from Seattle, a city few were familiar with then, to beat the prestigious Eastern schools (e.g., Yale and Harvard). The boat and the boys dealt with several disadvantages in Germany, both before and during their races, only to beat their competition. None of this story would be believable if I didn't know it was true.

Throughout this book, juxtaposed against Joe's and the boys' story is Hitler's creation of the fictional Germany that he wanted to present to the world during the Olympics there. As he hides the real Germany, the US ignores him, and the boys and other athletes just work on getting there.

When the story was over, I didn't want it to be over. So I read the endnotes. You'll probably do that, too.
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LibraryThing member michigantrumpet
I just loved this wonderful true life story of the oarsmen of the University of Washington. Far removed from their East Coast elite competition, these sons of lumbermen, farmers and Depression era down-and-outers managed to overcome the odds to compete at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Through their own
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dedication and commitment to excellence, they overcame much diversity. My deepest respect comes for their coaches and mentors who typified the best of leaders and educators everywhere. A favorite quote:

"...Bolles sometimes spoke of life-transforming experiences. He held out the prospect of becoming part of something larger than themselves, of finding in themselves something they did not yet know they possessed, of growing from boyhood to manhood. At times he dropped his voice a bit and shifted his tone and cadence and talked of near mystical moments on the water – moments of pride, elation and deep affection for one’s fellow oarsmen, moments they would remember, cherish and recount to their grandchildren when they were old men. Moments, even, that would bring them nearer to God.

We all hope for -- and if lucky enough, recall for a lifetime -- these moments of transcendence.
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LibraryThing member Bellettres
One of the best books of 2013 for me, certainly the best "sports" book I've ever read. An earlier review mentioned that it wouldn't have been as good if it had been a novel, and I agree. The difficulties that the young men on the rowing team had to overcome were almost unbelievable. Well researched
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and very well written. A+
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LibraryThing member LibraryCin
4.5 stars

Joe Rantz grew up extremely poor during the depression. His mother died when he was young and when his father remarried, Joe's stepmother, Thula, was very unhappy, so she, Joe's father, and their kids left Joe behind to fend for himself on a couple of occasions. Thula never wanted to take
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care of Joe. Joe managed to not only put himself through university, he made the rowing team... the rowing team that went on to fight for the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This is Joe's story, and the story of that rowing team.

I'm not “into” rowing, but this was really good. Some of the technical aspects that described the rowing, I skimmed over, but everything else was really interesting and quite riveting. Not only did we learn about rowing, Joe's life, and life during the Depression, there was also discussion of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany leading up to the Olympics that were held in Belin. All very interesting and I was reading “on the edge of my seat” during some of the races!
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LibraryThing member exfed
Excellent read, whether you care about rowing or not. Its a great story of human courage and perseverance. The classic American story of every day persons stepping up to do great things.
LibraryThing member benjfrank
The best book I've read in a long time. Like the crew described in the book, it starts out slowly and unassuming, but picks up the pace in a remarkable way. I read the last 120 pages this afternoon. Yes, it's about the University of Washington's 1935-1936 eight-man crew, but there's so much more to
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it than rowing. A group of working class boys from nowhere, try to get through the Depression, and follow a dour coach and a quietly poetic boat-builder on the waters of Lake Washington. They struggle quite a bit, each in their own ways, find a sort of mystical teamwork, "touch the divine" at one point, and maybe, just maybe, rattle Hitler at the Berlin Olympics. It's inspirational and wonderfully well-written. One reviewer called it "Chariots of Fire with oars." He's right. And it's expected to become a movie soon directed by Kenneth Branagh. But read it first. It's that good.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This was a startlingly good book! I'm not really interested in sports, and probably wouldn't have picked this up if it weren't set in Seattle, where I live. Once I started reading it, I couldn't put it down. You know from reading the cover that this is about the crew team that won a gold medal at
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the Olympics, but Brown still manages to create incredible suspension and keep the reader really interested.

It helps that this is one of those too-good-to-be-true stories, full of many classic elements: underdogs beating the odds, people learning to love and trust each other before they can succeed, working class boys out-doing East Coast old money at their own game, not to mention Good Old American hard work and perseverance defeating the Evil Nazis in their own back yard, all against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the tension of the build-up to World War Two.

The local color really helped, too - I am familiar with most of the places in Washington where the action takes place, so that probably helped me enjoy the book more than I would have otherwise.
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LibraryThing member traumleben
An incredibly well-written book that follows a group of Depression Era boys from Washington state to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as they work through individual struggle and team challenges along the way. Daniel Brown constructed a beautiful narrative, which you have to keep reminding yourself is
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documentary, based on journals, news features, recollections from relatives and friends, and exhaustive research on the whole. He has a gift for capturing a scene, an inner struggle, a small victory, the tension in a race that keeps you turning the pages. Brown really captures the character and grit of Americans who survived the Depression and went on to help liberate a world from fascism in WWII.
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LibraryThing member EBT1002
I started by giving this 4.5 stars because I don't think I've ever given a nonfiction work more than that. It seems weird to me. But the truth is that this book was almost life-changing for me. It was well-researched and well-written, with an intelligent commitment to the biographical aspect and a
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clear eye on the unfathomable history of that era. The eight-plus-coxswain crew who rowed for the University of Washington and then for the USA in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were savvy, good-hearted, salt-of-the-Earth young men. They overcame obstacle after obstacle but Brown doesn't coat the story with molasses or overplay the challenging roads they traveled to get to the UW and then to the Olympics. He tells the story with crisp, straightforward prose and a keen sense of the human spirit. This was an absolute delight to read and I will be visiting the Conibear Shell House on the UW campus this fall to pay due respect to these nine men. Absolutely recommended.
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LibraryThing member snash
A superb book. As the book explains, to row an 8 man scull well involves much more than 8 men rowing, and this book is much more than the story of a trip to the Olympics.
LibraryThing member maggie1944
I really loved this book. It was one of those which called me from the bedside table all through the day: come back, and read; come back and read! It is an accounting of the rowing crew of young men from the University of Washington who went to the Olympics in 1936 and against incredible
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disadvantages, some engineered by the Nazi men on the Olympic course, won the gold metal for an 8 man crew with a coxswain. This book appealed to me because it was filled with wonderful Seattle history, some of which made up stories I heard as a kid growing up in Seattle. And finally it pleased me because it is an excellent epic adventure of these young men and their coaches. A travel into unknown territory, overcoming huge challenges, meeting monsters and prevailing made up this story which really belongs with the best of epic hero tales. One more thing: the author knows his craft very well and built the tension and joy of watching races right into the pages, time after time, and even though the reader knows the end of the story it is a book which demands to be read to the end of the race. Five Stars from me, and a hearty recommendation to all readers who love history, and sport, and epic tales.
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LibraryThing member sail7
If I could give it 6 stars I would. This is an amazing story, told with just the right amount of detail. Even though the title tells you how it comes out, it is still a suspenseful story with a great ending. "Overcoming Adversity" is a severely overused term in sports commentary, but this story
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takes the meaning of the phrase to a new level. This is a book that is so engaging I hated to see it end.
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LibraryThing member nmele
A first class story, told with intelligence and style.
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
If you think a non-fiction book about rowing, will be boring, think again. Written and read exceptionally well, this is a compelling true tale. The history of boat building, rowing and shells, heroism and hardship makes for a brilliant reading experience. The story is written with such depth and
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description that the words fly off the page. To say it is inspiring is to dwarf its full effect. The reader is superb, enveloping the listener in his resonant, expressive voice, always assuming the right accent and stress, so much so that at times the reader may picture a glint in his eye. It is never maudlin nor is it hyperbolic. It is about a different time, beginning about a century ago, a time when the young grew up early, of necessity, survived by their wits, rarely gave up without a fight, and expected nothing for free and nothing unearned. It is about courage and resourcefulness in the face of the greatest negative odds, it is about believing in something in an all consuming way.
This book should be read by a wide audience, young adult and adult alike. I believe even middle graders would benefit from it, if led by a dedicated teacher, interested in imparting a moral lesson to the class. This book is a lesson on the benefits of perseverance, the ability to accomplish results believed out of reach, the ability to push oneself beyond what was believed to be human endurance; it is awe-inspiring.
“The Boys in the Boat” encompasses the traumatic events that occurred in the 20th century, from WWI, to The Great Depression, and then, briefly, follows up on the lives of the “boys” who served their country and grew into men. It describes the dust bowls, FDR’s WPA and the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, Hitler’s advance on Europe and the tragedy of the Holocaust, but mostly, it is about events leading to the enormous Olympic victory achieved by the University of Washington’s, American rowing team, in 1936. Germany staged the event, magnificently, to convince the world that The Fatherland was on its way to being Utopia, rather than a country creating a nightmare for the rest of the unsuspecting, perhaps blind by choice, world that did not want to become involved with the problems of others, a world view that seems all too familiar today.
The reader will devour the information presented on the history of rowing and its famed shell builder, George Yeoman Pocock, on the coaches who battled each other for the winning titles, who strove for an Olympic presence, and on the eventual success of the tenacious team from Seattle. They will wax nostalgic and marvel at the mention of such famous heroes and accomplishments like those of Joe Lewis, Jesse Owens, the horses, War Admiral and Sea Biscuit, and the Titanic and the S.S. Manhattan. Sadness will engulf the reader when they revisit the madness of Hitler and his concentration camps, Kristallnacht and WWII.
Mostly, though, this is the story of courage and inner strength, both found in Joe Rantz, a young boy, tossed out into the world at age 10 by poverty and cruelty. He was unprepared, but also unwilling to give up, unwilling to fail at life. No matter how many times he was knocked down, he somehow pulled himself up to face another day, and it is through his life that we learn of the boys who sat in the boat built by George Pocock that would lead them all to victory and a permanent place in history’s hall of fame.
This book tells the story of a group of young men, called boys throughout the book, which gave them an identity that seemed vulnerable and yet brave throughout. Each one, in his own way, was a hero and role model that would be wise to imitate today. They were boys with all the foibles boys possess, with all the mischief and crudeness, but they were boys that were determined to succeed, against all odds, against their ancestry, against the class barriers that tried to prevent them from achieving their goals. They had character. You will feel their struggles, their pain, their joy, their anger and their compassion. You may not understand the behavior of some of the characters, but you will eventually understand Joe’s ability to turn every negative into a positive, to forgive all and master every obstacle in his way, without becoming obsessed with the idea of revenge, only with the idea of succeeding.
The descriptions of the races will make the readers hold their breath in anticipation of the results. The details will put the readers there, in that same spotlight that the boys bask within when they win or lose because the prose is flawless and the audio reader's tone is impeccable.
Although some of the subject matter was painful to revisit, the beauty of the narrative countered any discomfort and made it a phenomenal experience, even worthier of reading. The author’s knack for painting accurate pictures of the scenes described was captivating. This author has done a formidable job of presenting a non-fiction book that reads like a novel. It is exciting, touching, tender, romantic, heartwarming, inspiring, and, in short, it is brilliant.
The boys beat Hitler at his own game, even though he tried to rig the rules, changing them so that Germany might win the competition and the medal. The reader will be at the Olympics every step of the way and will feel the tension of the moment which will be almost unendurable. Having hindsight, knowing what will come in the following decade, will make the reader even more aware of the importance of their win. This book imparted that feeling and every bit of the history with accuracy, and without overdoing the emotion.
The anecdotal stories related in “The Boys in the Boat”, enhanced the reader’s understanding of the times and the pressures these boys faced, the understanding of their effort to succeed in the face of daunting obstacles. If I could, I would give this book 10 stars. It is so head and shoulders above much of the drivel that is being turned out today. In spite of a childhood rife with neglect, in spite of formidable impediments before them, Joe and these boys always rebounded, always showed courage in the face of whatever hurdle had to be overcome and had the amazing courage of their convictions to keep on going toward success.
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LibraryThing member mikedraper
"The Boys in the Boat," tells the story of nine men who were members of the University of Washington crew team. It tells of their hard work in making the team and their goal to reach the 1936 Olympics and come home with a gold medal.

The story is well researched and the reader learns about the
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members of the crew, centering on Joe Rantz. He was a hard working young man, determined to be successful. His family was poor and he had to work to help support the family from a young age. At the same time, he continued his schooling.

Joe meets Joyce Sanders, and realizes that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her. Joe's mother died at a young age and his father remarried. Joe's step-mother never gave Joe any love. This was saved for the children she had with Joe's father. Joe even faced abandonment by his father and step-mother.

Joe's hard work is recognized and he's invited to enroll at the University of Washington and tryout for the crew team. There were no athletic scholarships at the time but making the team would mean that part time jobs would be available to help pay for a student's expenses.

As Joe and his fellow freshmen are molded into a championship team, across the country depression continues. Jobs were hard to come by and the dust bowl was a term for the terrible wind storms that blew topsoil away and caused many farmers to go bankrupt.

In Germany, Hitler is rising to power and Dr. Joesph Gobbles was made the German minister of propaganda. Both men hated Jews and the persecution of the Jews became intense.

This is a story of sports, determination and a hope of something many shared during the dark days of the depression.

The men travel to Germany and begin seeing the anti-Jewish tone of the country and renew their determination to represent the United States and row them to a championship against the Germans.

I enjoyed the story and sharing the teams moments in history. There are parts of the book that will remain with me for a long time.”
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LibraryThing member lisa.schureman
Wonderful book! The author keeps the tension going throughout the book which keeps the reader enthralled even though you know how the book is going to end. Having the backstory of the crew, their personal and financial challenges as well as their academic and physical ones. Brown is a wordsmith!
LibraryThing member creighley
Despite the fact that ones knows the outcome of this story, somehow Brown captivates the struggles of the men in the boat and the agony and beauty of rowing. The story focuses primarily on Joe Rants who despite overwhelming odds, becomes a central member of the rowing team. A remarkable tale!
LibraryThing member Cecilturtle
I wasn't quite sure about this book as a Book Club pick, but to my surprise I found myself deeply immersed in it and relived with intensity the few months of rowing I did back in college.
The frilly style soon settles into a companionable rhythm and the reader discovers Joe's world and slowly comes
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to discover the people and friends who populated it. There are cracks in the first chapters as Brown tries to fit the world stage and Hitler's Germany into the mix - these come as jarring and unnecessary - but as the book progresses these incursions in History bring Joe and his teammates' courage in the limelight. By the end of the book, after having watched Leni Riefenstahl's videos and leafed repeatedly through the photos, I was completely enthralled.
I put down the book with a sense of having known the oarsmen and admired their determination, perseverance and talent. A engrossing and inspiring read!
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LibraryThing member lauraodom
This was a much happier nonfiction book than Unbroken, but written about events that happened near the same time period. In fact, Louis Zamperini was actually briefly mentioned in this one.

The book is about the rowing team from the University of Washington who fought their way to the Berlin
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Olympics in 1936. Specifically, it focuses on the story of Joe Rantz, one of the eight rowers who would end up on the Olympic team despite all sorts of odds.

The only thing negative I found about this book was that it was a little hard to get into. In fact, I read the first two or three pages about three separate evenings before finally making it through the first chapter. So, it was a bit of a slow read for me – maybe just because of how it was written – more like a documentary than a gripping story. However, I did enjoy the book despite the fact that I have never rowed in a boat or even really paid much attention to regattas or boat racing. I found the details quite interesting, and when the races were being described, I felt as if I were on the edge of my seat watching them for the first time. I thought the story was well done, and I enjoyed learning about this event in history. 5 of 5 stars.
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LibraryThing member hazel1123
This book will be very near the top of my list of best books. The people are interesting and the descriptions of the actual races seem to bring the event to life .
LibraryThing member Trudy1947miller
Delightful,heart in the throat read i found inspiring, heartwarming,




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