This is the first of several books about Nebraska (or the High Plains) that I hope to read this year. I have to say, I hope it's not the best of them. I was all excited when I found it; I was just poking around the bookstore in Omaha where I used to work, and I ran across a book about North Platte that was a NYT Bestseller. Man, I thought, this is going to be good. I should have known better.
The book concerns a phenomenon that took place in North Platte (current population ~24,000) during WWII. It was a central stopping point for the troop trains that took armed-services personnel across the country. Trains would stop briefly at the station in North Platte, and the residents of the area began a program called the Canteen, where they would provide free food, drinks, magazines, etc. for the boys on the trains. It really was quite a thing—it was in operation from Christmas Day, 1941 through April 1, 1946, and they greeted every single train in that period (they served somewhere around 6.5 million soldiers total). All the provisions came from volunteers' own pockets, and this was during a time of rationing when people were having a hard time anyway.
So the subject is interesting enough. My problem was Greene's approach. I should have guessed it from the first chapter, but it took a little longer. Basically, what this book amounts to is a huge sob story about how people used to be nice to each other, and Everything Was So Much Better Then. Even that simplistic message, for what it's worth, gets muddled by his memoirist style, in which he roams aimlessly around current-day North Platte bemoaning the lack of Studebakers and bobby socks. I'm not a big fan of nostalgia anyway, and this was the worst kind. What kept me reading was the actual purported subject: the Canteen itself. Beyond that, I would never have bothered with more than a couple of chapters. But the stories are interesting, affecting, and worth reading for.
By the way, though, this book has the absolute worst ending I've ever seen. He actually quotes the rock group Kansas to close it. "All we are is dust in the wind." I'm not kidding. He and his editor should both be run out of the business for that bit of bathos. Frankly, everyone down to the typesetter should be. Someone should have stepped in and stopped it.