Reading the Past

Book Review by Sarah Johnson

Georgia Lowe’s debut novel The Bonus shines light on a pivotal and regrettably obscure event from the Depression era. In 1932, over 20,000 destitute and desperate WWI veterans banded together to persuade the government to pay their wartime service bonuses early. Calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, they arrived from all over the U.S. to converge on the nation’s capital and sway public opinion in their favor.

Lowe incorporates multiple viewpoints, primarily that of Will Hardy, a reporter assigned to cover the story for the Los Angeles Herald Express, and his girlfriend Bonnie, a statuesque red-headed starlet. Because the LA-based contingent to Washington is led by disabled actor Royal Robertson, Will wonders if their cause is a publicity stunt, but he’s soon persuaded of the rightness of their journey – even though going along with them as a journalist makes him uneasy. A veteran hit with occasional shell-shock, Will doesn’t want any reminders of his army days. Bonnie returns to her career after Will leaves, but she misses him terribly, even though she’s confused about his feelings for her. Disillusioned with Hollywood, and eager to help her friend Myrna leave a bad situation, the women set out to find him – and find help along the way.

DC police superintendent Pelham Glassford gets his tale told, too. Based on past experience, he expects President Hoover to be sympathetic to the marchers, but he isn’t. As thousands of hungry, determined, and unkempt veterans and their families settle into Washington, a “ragtag army invasion from a forgotten war,” Glassford does what he can to ensure they’re given shelter and fed, though the feds aren’t on his side. The Senate rejects the Bonus Bill passed by the House, rumors are spread about the veterans’ Communist beliefs (mostly untrue), and Hoover calls in the army – under General MacArthur – to clear out their makeshift campsites. It’s not a pretty scene.

Not just a vivid portrait of the unrest stirring in Washington, The Bonus also invites readers to take a firsthand look at the hopeless conditions throughout Depression-era America. Lowe re-creates the times with a sure hand: the blistering heat as the caravan of dying vehicles passes through Arizona in June, farm families evicted from their land in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, and veterans living in railway boxcars since they have nowhere else to go. The poverty hasn’t affected downtown LA nearly as much, although the traffic there is horrendous.  Some things never change.

The dialogue is pulpy and casual, peppered with coarse and authentic slang. (Newspapers are “Hoover blankets,” for one, which pretty well shows what people thought of Hoover.) As the plot breezes along, readers get to absorb the plight of female vets and Americans of mixed race through the clever placement of minor characters. A sweet love story, a wrenching social drama, and a vigorous defense of First Amendment rights, The Bonus is especially good at showing the strong bonds that develop between people when their luck is down. These downtrodden citizens epitomize the spirit of America better than their elected government does.

Toward the end, the main plotline sometimes gets buried in the mechanics of the political machine Glassford has to push through.  Overall, however, Lowe successfully transforms scenes from faded black and white photographs into living, breathing color. Will and Bonnie are based on her parents, who were Bonus Marchers, and with her entertaining and enlightening novel, she has done justice to their story.

The Bonus was published by Lucky Dime Press in Oct 2010 at $18.95 (pb, 398pp).

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