Friday, 3 July 2015

The Yanks Are Starving by Glen Craney

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: This is a sprawling epic of a novel which has at its core a shameful episode of American history – the story of the Bonus Army.

The Bonus Army were a group of veterans who had all served in the trenches during the First World War. In 1932, at the height of the depression, out of work and on the brink of starvation, they converged on Washington to demand the ‘bonus’ they had been promised for their service. For weeks, while Congress and Senate debated their fate, they lived in squalid camps around the city, only to be driven out by the army in a show of brutal force.

But The Yanks Are Starving is more than just the tale of that summer. In its scale and scope, it is reminiscent of Russian novels like Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which takes a similarly long view of the Siege of Leningrad.

The early chapters read like a series of short stories as, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, Craney assembles his cast of characters, both historical and invented. One by one, we meet young Westpoint officers like Macarthur, Pershing and Glassford, future President Herbert Hoover, notorious journalist, Floyd Gibbons, as well as those who will become nurses, stretcher bearers and the soldiers of the Rainbow Division and the Harlem Hellfighters.

It is only as the US enters the war in 1917 that the lives of these characters begin to intersect and we enter the hell of the trenches. Others perhaps have done more to show the scarring effect of that experience on the young soldiers. Craney’s characters are by and large a gung-ho lot.Yet Craney does not flinch from showing us the ugliness of war, nor the racism with which black soldiers were subjected, nor the brutal treatment meted out to conscientious objectors.

The first half of the book ends in 1919, with the soldiers returning to a parade on Fifth Avenue. The story then jumps to 1931, with Hoover in the White House, and the economy in the stranglehold of the Great Depression. It now becomes the tale of how a ragtag bunch of veterans, driven to desperation by poverty and starvation, try to take on Washington. And how the officers who once led them into battle turn their guns on them.

Craney has clearly done an enormous amount of research, and chosen from the lives of his historical characters incidents that make powerful scenes. He paints characters who are individual, often highly eccentric, in language that is rich and earthy.

The character who most frustrated me was Hoover. I would have liked to understand better how the man who organised famine relief in Europe during the War and who protested the draconian settlement with Germany at Versailles could, just over a decade later, so signally fail to provide the same help to his own people. Was he surrounded by the wrong people and badly advised? Or was it simply inconceivable to him that large scale starvation was possible within the United States?

At almost 550 pages*, this is not a read to be undertaken lightly. It is, however, a powerful story of a landmark event in history - one that made me both sad and angry. The novel feels timely, too, when once again the poor are asked to carry the can for the mistakes of rich men. If you believe in learning the lessons of history, this is one for you.

*paperback edition

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy

Avoid if you don’t like: Epic dramas, fictionalised historical figures, war stories

Ideal accompaniments: Vegetable stew, a tin mug of tea and an oboe playing ragtime.

Genre: historical fiction, war stories, saga

Available from Amazon

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