For some, competitive rowing might be a distant subject, reserved for Northeasterners and kids in boarding school. But sometimes the subject isn't actually the subject.
That's the case in Daniel James Brown's latest nonfiction book, "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics."
Brown elaborates, "'The Boys in the Boat' is a story about rowing only in the sense that Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit is a story about horses. Certainly the stage for the drama of the book is this somewhat obscure sport (though rowing was far from obscure in the 1930s), but the story played out on that stage is much larger - it's all about the human heart and world events."
The events in the world at the time of the novel include the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler's Third Reich in Germany. The story follows the journey of the University of Washington rowing team - a ragtag bunch, all sons of working-class families - as they first conquer their rivals from the elite Eastern universities and then the whole world at the Berlin Olympics.
"The story literally walked into my living room one day about six years ago in the person of my neighbor, Judy Willman," he said. "Her dad, Joe Rantz, was in the last few months of his life, living under hospice care at her house. Judy had been reading one of my earlier books to him and he wanted to meet me, so Judy asked if I would come down to her house and talk to him."
Rantz just happened to be one of the University of Washington rowers, and would become the main character of the book. He offered to share his story, but on one condition: the book had to be about more than just him.
Rantz decreed, "It has to be about the boat."
While Rantz would be the focus, winning gold at the Olympics was truly a team accomplishment.
"The enormous physical and psychological demands of rowing at the Olympic level humbled the nine boys who went to Berlin that summer to represent the United States," Brown said. "The rigors of the sport taught them that there were things they couldn't necessarily do on their own, that they needed one another in order to succeed, that they were at their best when they trusted one another and became a true team in the deepest sense of the word."
For Brown, writing a good history involves first finding a good story, and the first step is finding the right character.
"I think we generally like to be able to identify with the subject of a narrative - to put ourselves in the central character's shoes - and for most of us, that means a pretty ordinary pair of shoes," Brown said.
"The histories that really teach us the most important things, I think, are the ones that touch our hearts, and those are always personal," he said. "So that's really why the focus for 'The Boys in the Boat' was on Joe right from the beginning - because he revealed early on that the events in the story still brought tears to his eyes 75 years after the fact."
The Great Depression and Hitler's Germany are not exactly subjects that have gone ignored in literature.
A narrative, though, allows a writer to explore the deeper meaning of the events, and in the best case, as in "The Boys in the Boat," to show a new interpretation of those events through the eyes of an individual rather than through the cold lens of history.
"If it moves your reader," Brown said, "Then you've taught something important about the Holocaust and what was at stake at the 1936 Berlin Olympics when that American boat and that German boat lined up for the gold medal race in front of Hitler."
"You can read wonderful, comprehensive histories of the factors and forces that produced the Dust Bowl, but I think seeing America through Joe's eyes as he rode a train across the parched countryside in the summer of 1934 is more likely to bring it home to you."
Brown's book, like all great nonfiction, shows the events surrounding the story, but unlike pure history, it also lets the reader feel something of what it was like to be there. The personal perspective brings readers as close as possible to the living the events themselves.
"When an old man weeps," Brown said, "There are likely lessons to be learned from listening to him."