Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat

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The Boys in the Boat Themes


In the book’s prologue, an elderly Joe Rantz imparts to the author that any book written about the Berlin Olympics must not be about an individual rower, but about “‘the boat’” (3). This idea of a collective rather than an individual story sets up the novel’s most prominent theme: teamwork. Joe begins the novel as a fiercely independent young man, scarred by childhood abandonment and determined to make things work on his own, without help. “‘I’ve just got to take care of it myself’” (59), he insists to Joyce after she criticizes Joe’s father’s parenting. He resolves to “never again let himself depend on…anyone else” (59). Yet, this self-sufficient, sometimes self-serving attitude is antithetical to rowing. Rowing, Brown points out, is a sport in which every member of the team must row perfectly as an individual while being “perfectly synchronized with the movements of all the ” (89). Teamwork is vital, yet when a team fails, it often “comes down to a lack of concentration on one person’s part” (89).

During his freshman year, Joe struggles to become a member of the team. He feels isolated from his teammates because of his extreme poverty and resists becoming close to any of them. Joe is not the only one to resist true teamwork, as Ulbrickson records in his coaching notes, and “there were too many days when they rowed not as crews but as boatfuls of individuals” (158). However, during the summer after his freshman year, Joe works at the Grand Coulee dam with a group of men, including some of his own crew teammates. His job is dangerous, and he begins to see teamwork as something necessary for survival, rather than as a burden. He returns to Washington with a new perspective that is bolstered during his private meetings with Pocock. Pocock notices that Joe rows “as if it was up to him to row the boat across the finish line all by himself” (234), a statement which echoes Joe’s earlier declaration to Joyce. Pocock coaches Joe, encouraging him to bond with his teammates, because “a man couldn’t…

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