Joe’s America – Guest Post by Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat

So hey, you know what I really want to read? The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, out today from Viking Books. The Boys in the Boat is the story of the University of Washington’s crew team and their quest for Olympic gold at the 1936 games in Berlin. Brown focuses in particular on one of the rowers, Joe, who has very little else in his life besides the crew team. Brown is here today to talk about the America Joe grew up in, and the similarities to the America we live in today.


Seventy-eight years ago this summer, a tall, muscular young man with a blond crew-cut carefully strapped on a harness, took a deep breath, and lowered himself over the edge of a cliff in Washington State, clutching a sixty-pound jackhammer. All around Joe Rantz, dozens of other, shirtless, sun-bronzed young men were already at work, dangling from ropes over the abyss below, pounding away with their jackhammers at the solid rock face of what would eventually form the west anchor of the Grand Coulee Dam. The work was brutal, the noise deafening, the blistering sun relentless. Every move Joe made was potentially lethal. Rocks dislodged by his jackhammer bounced and ricocheted off the face of the cliff below him. Rocks dislodged by the men working higher on the cliff face rattled by on both sides of him. It was a full-time challenge just to avoid becoming the latest corpse laid out in the new mortuary at nearby Mason City. But Joe, like all the young men working at Grand Coulee in the summer of 1935, was profoundly grateful for the work, and for the 80 cents an hour that it paid. If he kept at it all summer, he might just have enough money to make it through another year at the University of Washington and keep rowing for the school’s varsity crew.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the work Joe Rantz did that summer. In fact, I have been pondering many aspects of Joe’s life for nearly six years now. It has taken me that long to research and write the story of how he and eight other extraordinary young men from the Pacific Northwest came together to form arguably the greatest collegiate rowing crew of all time. To understand their story, I’ve had to get to know all nine of boys pretty well, mostly through their letters, their diaries, and interviews with their children. In the process, I’ve had to live mentally in 1930s America—Joe’s America—for a long while now, only occasionally coming up for air and taking a peek around at America in the early twenty-first century. But now, with my book about their epic accomplishments—The Boys in the Boat—finished, I’ve finally remerged fully into the year 2013. And boy oh boy does it look familiar. Sometimes it feels as if I’ve never left Joe’s America. Continue reading Joe’s America – Guest Post by Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat

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