The Boys In The Boat


West Maui Book Club Discussion Questions

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Any page numbers refer to iPad/Kindle edition.

1) This book came with a lot of good press but without discussion questions of its own, so did it raise any questions in your mind? Did the book fulfill your expectations? If so, how and if not, why?

2) What portion of the book was most significant to you? And what surprised you most about that?

3) In the prologue, Joe Rantz admonishes the author, Daniel James Brown that the story should not be about him but rather, “It has to be about the boat.” After reading this story, does Brown accomplish that?

4) In speaking about “the boat”, Brown provides us with some beautiful insight through master craftsman, George Yeoman Pocock, to the making and understanding of a racing shell, most notably as defined on pg 136. Talk about Pocock’s understanding of the types of wood, (pg 137), the camber (pg 139), and the intimacy of wood (pg 214).

5) George Yeoman Pocock “was all but born with an oar in his hands”. Privately he tutored Joe about the rowing shell to help transform him into the type of oarsman he would eventually become. How much of Pocock’s beliefs (pgs 214-215) including that “for him the craft of building a boat was like religion” do you think were critical to Joe’s transformation?

6) Al Ulbrickson’s goal (pg 22) was to create a team from these “green and untested boys” that put -- first and foremost -- the boys in the boat as one entity ahead of anything else: personal glory, ego, etc. Obviously he achieved that so, what or whom do you think impacted the outcome most?

7) Were you surprised to learn “that rowing a two-thousand-meter-race – the Olympic standard – takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back? And it exacts that toll in about six minutes”? (pg 39)

8) How did the training and attitudes of the Seattle boys compare to the Ivy Leaguers back in the East?

9) Joe Rantz suffered immense emotional and physical hardship at an early age from the abandonment of his stepmother, Thula, and his father; yet he went on to achieve greatness in his sport. What does this say to you about Joe’s character? His father and stepmother? The times?

10) Did you or your parents live through the depression? If so, how did you or they fare in comparison to the people in this book?

11) Rowing in Washington comes with its own set of conditions, like: frigid weather; choppy freezing water; gusting winds, etc., after reading how these athletes practiced under these conditions at the demands of their coaches, how do you think it benefited them?

12) In separate but parallel chapters, Brown writes of the rise of Hitler’s regime, it’s burgeoning atrocities and discriminations. At the climax of the 1936 Olympics, and in particular during the rowing event, had your hopes peaked for the boys in the boat as well in spite of already knowing they would win?

13) How does Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of Will” correlate to rowing with regards to the efforts she took in capturing Germanys’ underlying spirit and conveying it to the three-quarters of a million party members who were actually in Nuremberg that week? (pg 142-144)?

14) Brown writes that the swing (pg 161) is something that “is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it…” Have you ever competed on that high a level or even danced, paddled, played golf, tennis or do some other activity with such synchronicity? If so, isn’t it true how magical everything seems to be?

15) Hawaii is known historically and worldwide for its ancient and current contributions to paddling. Can you compare the Hawaiian philosophies in both common and different ways to how Brown describes it in this book?

Some interesting facts about the 1936 Olympics:


There were 10 African American Olympic athletes that won a total of 7 gold medals, 3 silvers and 3 bronzes, amongst them was Jesse Owens who won 4 gold medals and broke 11 Olympic records. The first, however, was Cornelius Johnson, who when about to receive his medal was snubbed by Hitler who left the stadium and would remain missing even for the medaling of Jesse Owens. Coincidentally, Owen, like many of the track & field athletes, was wearing German track shoes manufactured by Gebruder Dassler Schuhfabrik that later split into Adidas and Puma.

Germany won only five combined gold medals in men’s and women’s track and field, but save face for the “master race” in the overall medal count with an 89-56 margin over the United States.

The top female performers in Berlin were 17-year-old Dutch swimmer Rie Mastenbroek, who won three gold medals, and 18-year-old American runner Helen Stephens, who captured the 100 meters and anchored the winning 4x100-meter relay team.

Basketball also made its debut as a medal sport and was played outdoors. The U.S. men easily won the first gold medal championship game with a 19-8 victory over Canada in the rain.

Questions compiled by Elaine Gallant 01/04/14