Best-selling author of ‘The Boys in the Boat’ to come to Park City
September 1, 2015
Daniel James Brown sees inspiration in a group of nine farm boys from Depression-era western Washington who banded together to win the gold medal in rowing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
He was moved so much by their tale that he spent four and a half years researching and writing about it in the book ‘The Boys in the Boat,’ which has been a New York Times best-seller for more than a year. Now, he is coming to Park City to share the story as part of the Park City School District’s Author-in Residence program.
The program, sponsored by the Park City Education Foundation, required every Park City High School student to read ‘The Boys in the Boat’ over the summer. Brown will be working with students for two days in their English classes, on Sept. 15 and Sept. 16, and will also speak at a free community conversation Sept. 15.
The book explores many themes, but Brown hopes that the importance of determination in the face of challenges is the one that shines through for the students. The boys in the story — who comprised the crew team for the University of Washington — came from lower middle-class families in a time of economic strife, yet persevered to leave their marks on history.
"What I think it comes down to is I want to give (the students) a sense for what it was like for some young people to live in a very different period in American history and to confront the kinds of difficulties that they did," Brown said. "I want them to learn something from how they went about overcoming those difficulties and going on to do something as amazing as to win an Olympic gold medal."
Brown admits a particular fondness for the so-called Greatest Generation, of which the boys profiled in the book were a part. He is always awed when he hears stories of people from that era pulling together to do great things. But one other message that he hopes to imprint on Park City students is that greatness is not reserved only for the people who have come before — it’s out there for them, too, if they’ll put in the work to achieve it.
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"I think kids tend to have goals and dreams, and they tend to be uncertain and unsure about whether they can really realize those dreams," he said. "Part of what I want to convey is these guys (in the story) were ordinary American kids. These were farm kids from western Washington, basically. They were really ordinary kids. But by applying themselves, by learning to trust one another, by learning to take what they were doing really seriously, being earnest about it, they were able to do something really remarkable."
Brown is eager to see what, exactly, Park City students took from ‘The Boys in the Boat.’ The book was published more than two years ago, and it Brown discovered quickly after its release that readers have forged strong, surprising connections with the story.
"People started sending me emails, telling me that when they finished the book they had tears in their eyes," he said. "That really surprised me. The story affects me a lot, too, but it took me aback that it was affecting people on that deep, emotional level. I’ve thought a lot since then about why that is, and I think it has to do with people really identifying with these boys and really coming to love them, in a sense."
It’s gratifying for Brown to discover that people have found deep meaning in the book, something into which he poured so much of himself. Eliciting that response is what drives him to write narrative non-fiction. He said storytelling — and hearing stories — fulfills a basic human urge to connect with others, and he’s looking forward to sharing that experience in Park City.
"Storytelling is a way of encapsulating and holding onto and preserving the things that we value," he said. "And I think that’s part of the appeal of this book. I think it touched a nerve. I think there are values that these boys embodied that a lot of people feel are slipping away or are not celebrated enough. It keeps those values alive, it transmits them. That’s at the heart of it."
The community conversation at which Brown will speak is scheduled for Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Jim Santy Auditorium at the Park City Library. Admission is free to the public.