The Yanks are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army by Glen Craney is a novel set in the pivotal decades of the opening of the twentieth century. Craney is a graduate of Indiana School of Law and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. As a member of the Washington Press Corps, he covered the Iran Contra Trial for Congressional Quarterly magazine. Previously Craney practiced trial law.
World War I is my favorite period of history to read about because so much of what the twentieth century became can be directly tied to the war. From standing armies, communism, mechanized warfare, alliances, and the rise of the United States are a result of the war. By the end of the century the Serbs would draw Europe into limited fighting, Russia would become a country again, and artificial borders created after the war would vanish. It was the beginning of the modern times. Initially, I was expecting a short novel covering that single page in history books about Hoovervilles and McArthur facing off against the WWI vets protesting in Washington DC. Admittedly, this incident is barely mentioned in history books and probably has escaped most American’s historical memory. There is a reason for this. Not only is it part of the deep depression, it is also a national embarrassment. Probably the first in a long line. I remember the treatment Vietnam veterans received coming home and how problems reintegrating into society were ignored. I also remember Gulf War Syndrome being called a hoax, and I don’t seem to see many “I Support the Troops” flags or car magnets any more. The Bonus Army was the first of many lessons in the disposability of military veterans after they served their purpose.
I was a little surprised to see this book had nearly six hundred pages to cover a single event. The surprise, it turns out, was very pleasant. The Yanks are Starving covers three decades through the eyes of eight major characters and a few supporting ones. There are supporting characters like a young Eisenhower, Smedley Butler, George Patton, and James “Big Jim” Reese Europe. Of the main characters, Herbert Hoover is a compassionate man who reminds me much of Jimmy Carter both as during and before his presidency. Douglas Macarthur is shown on a personal side much different than his image in World War II and Korea. There are two common working class characters Joe Angelo and Walter W Waters who are drawn together by WWI. Anna Raber, a Mennonite, experiences WWI as a nurse in Europe. Ozzie Taylor, a black street musician, and Pelham Glassford, a West Point plebe, round out the sexes, races, and classes of America.
Reading advance praise for the book I saw a glowing review by a Marine veteran. As a Marine veteran myself, that peaked my interest since Marines are mostly interested in Marine Corps history. I found out quickly the Marines had their role in this story. The book opens with Smedley Butler in China during the Boxer Rebellion and the Marines role expands through the last major character in the novel Floyd Gibbons, a reporter from the Minnesota Star. It was only last year I found out about Floyd Gibbons. He is responsible for immortalizing the second most important Marine Corps’ event after the raising of the flag at Mount Suribachi — The Battle of Belleau Woods.
One problem I typically find in historical fiction is that the author will take an event and choose and discard events that he wants to include and exclude from history. Basically uses what he needs to fabricate a good story. In the end, many novels end up no more accurate than a “based on a true story” television movie. Craney manages to keep history honest and, although a few characters are fictional and conversations cannot be verified, there is little need to fact check his work.
As I mentioned above the history is accurate, but it is the storytelling that pulls you in. The writing, flow of the story, and characters make The Yanks are Starving very difficult to put down. Craney does an outstanding job at bringing the history to life and keeping it alive. There isn’t that usual long dry spot in the middle of the novel that the reader feels obligated to trudge through. The Yanks are Starving is event and character driven. When some of the characters are having down time the reader is quickly switched over to another character or group of characters, and there is no filler in nearly six hundred pages of the novel.
Although the book centers around mostly the army and army veterans, there is enough Marine Corps in this book to keep any Marine veteran reading. I will admit to being drawn into this story and thoroughly enjoying it, although I usually avoid military novels that do not center around the Marines. This is also much more than a military book. It is about American classes, race, the sexes, and the role of government and the military. It is also a story about threats to America, real or imagined, and the changes in American culture. Craney has written an outstanding social and military historical novel of the United States covering the crossing over from the nineteenth century mentality into the twentieth century. Simply put, an outstanding novel.