Oh, Daniel James Brown, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
- I love the way you write.
- I love the way you write.
- I love the way you research.
- I love the way you pace your books.
- I love the gentle yet firm way you handle characters (are they called characters in nonfiction?).
- I love the gems of detail you sprinkle throughout your books.
- I love the way you love words.
- I love the way you pull me into the big fat arms of your story.
- I love the way you develop a setting, so real it’s as if I’m there (I’m there! I’m there!).
- I love the way you write (you write, you write, you write …).
And for those of you not totally crushing out on Daniel James Brown, have you read Boys in the Boat yet? I finished a few days ago and still can’t get it out of my mind. It’s epic. It’s long. It encompasses not only the 1930s rowing climate around Seattle but also the struggles of the depression era and the political landscape in Nazi Germany leading up to the 1936 Olympics.
It’s a powerful read, one of those books where you lose yourself, where you start reading and then look up a few hours later and feel a sense of confusion to be on your own couch, in your own living room, because aren’t you supposed to be rowing across Lake Washington with the team? With Joe Rantz and Johnny, Gordy and Roger, Chuck and Shorty, Stub and Chuck and Don Hume and, one of my favorites, Bobby Moch?
Boys in the Boat is a story of working class young men struggling to stay in school, struggling to make it through life, struggling to pull together enough money for food and supplies, and yet somehow defy the odds to win an Olympic gold metal. It’s heroic and inspirational, yes, but what I love most is how Brown treats his characters, how he brings them to life as if they are his own, as if he knows them personally, without sensationalizing or emotionalizing. Instead, he does what all writers should do: He stays in the background and lets the story tell itself.
And what a damned and amazing story. What a rags to winning saga. Mostly, though, the book is about learning to trust and work together as a team. It’s about accepting what you have, all of your limitations and weaknesses, your strengths and truths, and refusing to turn away when things get tough. It’s about the beauty and harmony of rowing, of losing yourself to the hard and painful reality of aching muscles and gasping breath. It’s about impossible odds suddenly, almost miraculously, made possible.
I did, however, have one minor criticism: The book is damned long. And I sometimes became impatient to get to the good stuff, the Olympic race stuff beating-the-crap-out-of-the-goddamned-Nazis stuff. (It was kind of like too much foreplay when you just want to get down and dirty and do it.) Yet this slow build-up is one of the book’s key strengthens, allowing the reader to linger, to take their time, to really feel a part of this world Brown has meticulously and laboriously and affectionately recreated.
I highly recommend Boys in the Boat and give it 6 stars out of a possible 5 (it’s that damned good).
But wait! I’m not finished gushing about Daniel James Brown. E
Earlier this year, I read another of his books, The Indifferent Stars Above, which follows the Donner party on its trek out West to inevitable tragedy. And wow, what a book! What a read! What immaculate and intriguing and extended research. It was so good that I suspended my life for a few days. I actually (gasp here) skipped a run, which I never do, because I simply could not stop reading.
The Indifferent Stars Above follows Sarah Graves and her family as they head West with the rest of the group that makes up what is later referred to as the Donner Party. They face numerous hardships and never-ending conflicts as they head to the promise land of California from Missouri. They walk much of the way, and let’s stop here and imagine walking across the country in the type of shoes they wore back then (no cushy Hokas or padded hiking boots), and without breathable fabrics or sunscreen or water bottles or hydration packs.
Imagine setting out on this journey with no knowledge of what likely lies ahead, no photographs or travel logs or TV shows depicting the terrain and dangers. No GPS if you get lost. No satellite radio to call for help. (And no cell phones to snap selfies along the way.)
(Side note: Brown revisited much of the route himself during his research, and the familiarity with the landscape shines through in the writing.)
What the group doesn’t know (but what we the readers do, which gives the book a voyeuristic feel, as if we are peering into their windows and watching this inevitable trek towards disaster), is that they’re following an unreliable and untested route given to them by an unscrupulous dude with political gain who cared more about money and his own ego than other people’s safety (sound familiar?).
When winter arrives, they find themselves stranded in the mountains with little food, little firewood, hastily built shelters, etc. We all know what follows, of course: The nightmare scenario, the starvation and desperation, the ugliness and the hunger that leads to an unthinkable fate for some, and an almost implausible rescue for others.
I won’t give away the ending, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the Donner Party story. I’ll just say that after it’s all over, when a few hardy and exhausted and half-dead survivors reach the farm in California, Brown doesn’t end it there. Instead, he fills us in on the lives of the survivors in the years following (Sarah, who loses her husband during the journey, remarries two more times).
The most beautiful part of the book has to be the epilogue, where Brown returns to the area a few years later and searches unsuccessfully for Sarah’s grave at the Pioneer Cemetery. He’s clearly haunted by her story, and the others, too. It’s as if he can’t let go, doesn’t know how to let go. It’s almost as if he fell in love with Sarah and the others, the way we sometimes fall in love with those we write about, and this is what makes the book so full and rich and powerful: Brown’s love for the adventure and the wildness and the unpredictability and even the tragedy of it all, a love and respect so tightly woven that every word, every character comes alive as you read it.
Sometimes, you can almost feel them breathe.
Highly, highly, highly recommend, and give it 6.5 stars out of 5.