Friday, April 15, 2011

Book review: The Bonus, by Georgia Lowe

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).


  1. This sounds interesting and not a subject matter that gets a lot of attention normally!

  2. I did not even know about this piece of history. Sounds good.

  3. I hadn't known about it either, to be honest, but the novel's encouraged me to delve more into the history behind it.

  4. Nor did I.

    Love, c.

  5. That sounds like such a fantastic book. I did know about the Bonus March, but it was one of those two-paragraph blurbs in a history textbook, and it's been a long time since I've remembered it. Thanks, Sarah, for sharing this one.

  6. If you read it, Lucy, I hope you enjoy it too. I missed out on a lot of 20th-c US history in school - there was so much to cover that we didn't make it past WWI.

  7. Really enjoyed this review. As you know, my own writing is about the Dust Bowl in this time period.

    The Bonus Army story is a sad one. One of the lasting images representing the Roosevelt years is that Roosevelt refused to attack these men. In fact, he sent Eleanor Roosevelt to speak with them and, I believe, serve coffee. She was well received. People said: "Hoover sent the army, but Roosevelt sent his wife."

  8. Shelley, I was wondering if you might be interested in this book. Roosevelt doesn't appear in person, but he and his efforts are shown in a very positive light from the preface on. Great quote.

  9. How interesting! One of my novels focuses on the Bonus March, something I found difficult to research, as there really isn't much out there on the subject. I will have to look up this novel!

    And, Sarah, I'm with you about having missed out on most everything pre-WWI in school just by virtue of the teachers running out of time. I think this is why I'm so drawn to this era in my writing.

  10. Um, 'fess up time. While the teacher was, er, droning on, I went through the textbooks looking at all the pictures, and reading big chunks. So, yeah. We never officially got to most of that either.

    Hey, I was bored. :D

  11. Shelley, I really like that quote about Eleanor; thanks for sharing!

    wordver: woosidt

    Opposite of "findit"

  12. Jessica, I think if my HS teacher hadn't spent a few weeks going over the Civil War in exhaustive detail (it was his favorite subject) it's possible we could've gotten up to the '60s!

    That class did a lot to turn me off US history... it was all battles and Presidents, next to nothing about social issues like this. Which I personally find more interesting.

  13. Agreed, Sarah. I think this is a big part of why I'm really not interested in much U.S. history up until about Reconstruction. My teachers too spent far too long with what the country was doing then without really getting into what the people were doing.

    And Lucy, I must confess to peeking ahead too! Somehow that always made those bits of history seem more thrilling!