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By pmallory - Posted on 30 October 2014

30 October 2014

On 12 October of this year at the One Book One City event in Beverly Hills, California, I had the distinct honor of introducing my very good friend, Daniel James Brown. Here is what I said:

You may not be aware that The Boys in the Boat is Daniel James Brown’s third published book of narrative nonfiction. He has a bachelor’s degree from Cal and a master’s from UCLA. He has taught writing at San Jose State and Stanford. This overnight sensation has actually been working at his craft for many years now.

Periodically history produces a confluence of events that seems to defy adequate description or understanding. Three times, so far, Dan has immersed himself in such a confluence, the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 in Minnesota, the Donner Party of 1846, and most recently the University of Washington Eight-Oared Crew at the 1936 Olympics . . . and Dan takes no credit for the stories he tells. He believes the credit belongs to the individuals who lived those stories.

Of such events as these, usually all we have left are journals, photos, newspaper articles, books, historic sites, perhaps some artifacts. Places and things. Echoes. Stuff! Dan’s genius is that he sifts through these echoes and finds within them the people who lived the history he is recreating.

In each of his books, he used a personal connection to lead him into a particular world at a particular moment in time. The fire in Dan’s first book, Under a Flaming Sky, took the life of his great-grandfather. In connection with Dan’s second book, The Indifferent Stars Above, his great-uncle had begun his westward journey with the Donner Party, and that led Dan to the photograph of another member who became the inspiration for his book.

What was Dan’s connection to The Boys in the Boat? Complete happenstance. He was introduced to an extremely elderly neighbor. Dan will tell you the rest of that story in a moment.

As a rowing historian myself, I must tell you that the rowing community owes a HUGE debt of gratitude to Daniel James Brown. Even the University of Washington was unaware that a couple of members of the 1936 Crew were still alive back in 2006 when Dan began his research. They didn’t know there existed family journals for most of The Boys in the Boat. Had fate not brought Dan and his neighbor together with time fast running out, all their stories would have been lost for all time. I cannot adequately describe how grateful all rowers are to Dan for preserving this golden moment of our history.

In his research, Dan attempts to get to know his subjects by walking in their footsteps, literally in the case of the Minnesota fire and the Donner Party, or by sitting in their seats, as was the case of The Boys in the Boat. Indeed, Dan develops PERSONAL relationships with the people in his books, and thanks to his skill, he allows us to connect on a personal level with these people as well, feel their feelings, experience their joys and disappointments.

Dan also helps us relate to the events in his books by including the geopolitical contexts, the connections of these events to the world at large, so that we can better understand the Westward Migration of the 1840s, the growing pains of a burgeoning nation in the 1890s, the Global Depression and the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Through his lens, we don’t just read history. We experience days gone by.

But enough talk. I am very pleased to present to you Daniel James Brown.