Mayor’s Arts Award: Daniel Brown

It’s another gray day in Seattle. Seaplanes circle Puget Sound and ferries pull away from the docks. It could easily describe fall 2015, but these familiar sights actually set the scene for October 9, 1933 and Daniel James Brown’s best-selling book, The Boys in the Boat.

“The book is about many things, but part of its story is the character of Seattle itself and the people who’ve grown up here and made the city what it is,” Brown says.

Published in 2013, The Boys in the Boat is the gripping tale of the University of Washington men’s crew team who won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. They were working-class sons of loggers and farmers who defeated the world’s elite despite Depression-era poverty. Their story is told largely through the hardscrabble, personal story of crewmember Joe Rantz and interwoven with history of the Great Depression, the rise of the Nazi empire and Seattle’s own evolution.

The book’s blockbuster success includes a number-one spot on the New York Times Best Seller list and a 2014 Washington State Book Award for general nonfiction. Brown is also the recipient of a 2015 Mayor’s Arts Awards in the category of Creative Industries.

I like stories about ordinary people who are called on to do extraordinary things,” Brown says. “I also look for stories with a certain amount of physicality and something that involves action, movement and landscape.” His previous books include The Indifferent Stars Above, about the Donner Party, and Under a Flaming Sky, chronicling the 1894 Minnesota firestorms.

The Boys in the Boat rather literally presented itself on Brown’s doorstep. Joe Rantz’s daughter, Judy Willman, is Brown’s neighbor. Willman took copious notes about her father’s life and approached Brown about writing a book. “I knew the day after I met Joe that I wanted to write it,” Brown says. “I spent the next week reading a paperback copy of Seabiscuit (Laura Hillenbrand’s award-winning account of the eponymous racehorse). I marked every page seeing what kind of writerly decisions she made.”

Rantz and Brown spent a few months together before Rantz died in 2007. Brown interviewed the families of Rantz’s fellow rowers, collecting hundreds of hours of stories. He spent countless hours “hunched over microfilm” in UW’s Suzzallo Library reading period newspapers and magazines, and traveled to all of the book’s locations including Germany.

“Pretty much without exception, they were humble guys. A lot of them came home from the 1936 Olympics and put their medals in the sock drawer and hardly mentioned it for the rest of their lives. Joe was that way. He was glad to tell the story, but didn’t crow about these amazing achievements.”

The impact of The Boys in the Boat continues to expand. It is reigniting former notions of community and success even in its own hometown—a reminder that Seattle possesses a human-driven history beyond current, corporate headlines.

The Boys in the Boat was launched at a University Bookstore event complete with a choir, hundreds of attendees and many people personally connected to the 1936 events, and it’s one of the store’s bestselling books. “I think it’s especially important to know and preserve the history of a region when a lot more people are moving here,” says Anna Micklin, University Bookstore trade book buyer and Seattle native. “It enriches where you live to know more about the history so you feel connected to the place.”

Rowing was incredibly popular in Seattle during the 1930s. Tens of thousands of spectators lined local shores to cheer on the UW teams, and The Boys in the Boat is fostering modern appreciation. Brown himself “didn’t know the first thing about rowing” and exhaustively researched the terms, emotions, physiology and more. He now considers himself an absolute fan.

“There is a certain kind of common character. I don’t know if rowing develops it or if rowing attracts people who already have it. They tend to be optimistic, forward leaning, nice people,” Brown observes.

The book continues to reach new audiences. A young reader’s adaptation (same story, slimmed-down vocabulary) will be released in September, and the film rights were purchased by The Weinstein Company and a script is in development.

“I really do love this story because it illustrates the sense of community there is in Seattle and that it has roots way back in the 1930s. Particularly being recognized by something like the Mayor’s Arts Award that represents the City of Seattle itself, that is very gratifying,” Brown says.