Book Review: The Yanks Are Starving

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Veterans rights are front page news today. From a staggering and seemingly unsolvable disability claims backlog at the VA to recent veterans struggling to find employment back home, veterans issues look bleak. Naively, I assumed current events are an anomaly and that our nation has always treated veterans fairly.

Despite all the servicemen in my family, injustices to returning soldiers never came up in our dinner conversations. My father served in the Air Force, my uncle was an Army Ranger, and my grandpa served in the Navy in the Korean War. On my mom’s side, my grandfather served in the Army and survived over three years as a POW in the Cabanatuan prison camp. And, I’ve read a fair amount about war—Ghost Soldiers comes to mind—but I must have missed (or overlooked?) significant aspects of how we treat returning soldiers.

For example, can you imagine tanks rumbling down streets of our nation’s capital? And a military campaign led by Douglas MacArthur to fight our own veterans? It sounds flat out unbelievable, but that’s how events played out in 1932.

If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” ~Pearl Buck

Glen Craney’s, The Yanks Are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army, shines a light on a not well-known chapter of our country’s history. Craney divides the novel in two parts—first chronicling a diverse group of eight characters in WWI, then telling their stories again in 1932 as they struggle in the aftermath of the war. While Herbert Hoover’s presidency grappled with the Great Depression, veterans suffered mightily.

After surviving bayonets, cannons, and mustard gas in the trenches of France, America’s veterans were promised a bonus payment for their service. But here’s the kicker—Congress scheduled the bonus payment to be paid in 1945. The distant payment date became unacceptable to many former soldiers. All too frequently homeless or unemployed, WWI veterans began to unite under a common cause to urge Congress to pay the bonus immediately. The author carefully narrates how tens of thousands of desperate men (and a few women) became involved in a risky, nationwide fight to receive payment for service. Craney details how the Bonus Army formed, grew, and then escalated to a prolonged march and deadly conflict in Washington, D.C.

I have a new perspective on our current veterans’ struggles after reading this book. Which is precisely why I genuinely love reading historical fiction. Skilled authors like Craney are able to make the past relevant again.

Will you like it?

If you enjoy historical fiction and military history, The Yanks Are Starving is intriguing. While I typically don’t choose to cozy up to bloody battle scenes, I do appreciate learning more about an important aspect of, frankly, a disgraceful period of our history. I liked the second half of the novel a little better than the first because the story is set in one of my favorite cities, D.C., and I much prefer reading about nasty politics over gruesome scenes in trenches. Craney’s novel satisfies a lot of my criteria for a good book—solid writing, richly developed characters, cultural relevance, and suspense.

From time to time, I struggled with dialects assigned to certain characters, like Walter Waters. He’s a pivotal character, and yet I found myself sometimes skimming his pages because I grew tired of the accent.

Speaking of characters, I had two favorites. I loved the selfless, outspoken Mennonite nurse, Anna Raber, a composite character. And, I was completely charmed by the motorcycle riding, landscape painting, WWI veteran and D.C. Chief of Police, Pelham Glassford.

Is this a good book club pick?

It depends. Technically, I’m in three book clubs (yes, I’m overcommitted and it’s a character flaw), and I think only one of the clubs would like to read The Yanks Are Starving. For ardent fans of stories on wartime heroics, there is plenty to value and discuss. Personally, I’m not recommending it to my friends who regularly gravitate more toward character-driven novels. To be specific, if your book club enjoyed Gone Girl, Everything I Never Told You, and Orphan Train, this book is probably not for you. That said, I am recommending it to my husband, several uncles, and a few other friends that devour military literature. The Yanks Are Starving just feels more like a guy’s book. Dude book clubs—I’ve heard they exist—would likely appreciate the novel.

Would it make a good gift?

Yes. Craney’s novel is on my gift list. I have a few individuals in mind, but I’m not revealing who will receive a copy for perhaps Father’s Day or an upcoming birthday. The Yanks Are Starving would make a great present for readers who aren’t daunted by a long book (over 500 pages) and who like to get a 360-degree view of a conflict.

Book review disclaimer

I received a digital reading copy of The Yanks Are Starving from the author. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

Happy reading,

Amy