I received a free digital copy of The Yanks are Starving from the author in exchange for an honest review. That fact didn’t influence my opinion in any way.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Mired in the Great Depression, the United States teeters on the brink of revolution. And as the summer of 1932 approaches, a charismatic hobo leads twenty thousand desperate World War I veterans into the nation’s capital to demand their service compensation.
The remarkable events are unfolded through the eyes of eight individuals who come together on a tense July day to determine the nation’s fate:
— Herbert Hoover, the beleaguered president.
— Douglas MacArthur, the ambitious West Point general.
— Pelham Glassford, the compassionate District of Columbia police chief.
— Walter Waters, the troubled leader of the Bonus veterans.
— Floyd Gibbons, the war correspondent and famous radio broadcaster.
— Joe Angelo, the banty Italian-American who serves as George Patton’s orderly.
— Ozzie Taylor, the street musician turned Harlem Hellfighter.
— Anna Raber, the Mennonite nurse.
This timely epic leads the reader across a memorable panorama of American history, from the Boxer Rebellion in China to the Plain of West Point, from the persecution of conscientious objectors to the horrors of the Marne, and from the Hoovervilles of the heartland to the pitiful Anacostia encampment in the bowels of the nation’s capital.
Here is the shocking but little-known story of the political intrigue and government betrayal that culminated in the only pitched battle ever fought between two American armies under the same flag.
It is a long book – it took me almost a week to read it – but its length is understandable, with such a wide scope. We are shown so many different characters from different walks of life: from young Hoover, the future president of the United States, questioning his Quaker faith in China, to journalist Floyd Gibbons travelling with rebels in Mexico, to the Mennonite, Anna Raber (my favourite character actually), who is blackmailed by her fiance’s commander to go to London and begin her career as an army nurse.
The first part begins in the early twentieth century and takes in military action in China, Mexico and then France during World War I. The second part is concerned with the political fallout of the Depression and the events surrounding the Bonus Expeditionary Force.
I am glad to see one of the most glossed over and darkest times in American history addressed. The Bonus Army was a real thing. The US government first asked young men to defend democracy overseas and then they shunned them, treating them as dangerous criminals. What’s more, in difficult times of the Great Depression the vets were denied their earned bonus money – for many veteran families a make-or-break financial lifeline. Nobody called them patriots or heroes anymore, they were called bums, hobos and worse. It was a heartrending story, a showcase for callousness and greed of politicians.
There’s a danger with this kind of book: it often gets out of hand, its narrative crowding the characters in, and it is also my main carping. Even though the narrative voice of Mr. Craney was good, compelling and readable there were moments when I wished he had trimmed his novel down, removing a POV or two (or, alternatively, writing it as a series). As it is, the author uses one third of the book just to introduce properly different characters (and there are many of them), sometimes making you think ‘what the hell is going on? Why I am told about this or that person in the first place?’. Had the subject-matter been of less interest to me, I think I would have ditched this one after a while (and it would be a pity because the novel is definitely worth reading to the very end).
A compelling story full of great characters but a bit too long. I don’t regret reading it and I recommend it for those who like the period (the USA between First and Second World War) but be warned: it is a long book, demanding some patience. Not all connections will be clear at first, not every character’s role fully understandable.