Saturday, September 20, 2008

Book Review: "Once Upon a Town", by Bob Greene

Are you having a bad day? Is the news beginning to make you wonder if Americans could ever possibly treat each other with respect again? Are you losing faith in the human race? Are you unfamiliar with that big flat area in the middle of the country, and do the people who live there seem as different from you as space aliens? Here's a book to pick up and enjoy, that will lift your spirits and restore your faith in your fellow man.

I just love "Once Upon a Town", by Bob Greene! I've been rereading it for the second time, and realized I wanted everyone I knew to have a chance to enjoy this uplifting book as well, so I decided to put up a review.

While a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Bob Greene stumbled onto story about the razing of the railroad depot in North Platte, Nebraska. It led him on a fact-finding trip to this small town, and then on to many interviews with people who had lived there during World War II, and also men who had travelled through on the troop trains. He wound up writing an entire book about the phenomenon of the the North Platte Canteen.

Ten days after Pearl Harbor, families and friends of the Nebraska National Guard's Company D heard a rumor that their boys would be coming through North Platte on a troop train as they shipped out to the West Coast. 500 townspeople showed up at the station with food, cigarettes, letters, and love to give to the boys. But there was a mistake. The soldiers on the train were from Kansas' Company D, not Nebraska's. The townspeople decided to go ahead and give the Kansas boys the things they had brought. The train was only in the station for a few minutes, but when they saw how much the young men appreciated what was done for them, the local people, organized by a young woman named Rae Wilson, decided to do this for all the troops coming through North Platte.

What happened after that was something amazing. For four years, day in and day out, all the troop trains were met with cheerful local people serving the men homemade food, coffee, snacks they could take on the train, letters from people they didn't even know, and even a pianist playing their requests, while they quickly ate and visited during the stop. All this was done using
coffee cups that need to be washed, fresh foods raised on the area farms, coffee donated from people's ration books, and food cooked in the homes of people in the area, some of whom did not yet have electricity! The interviews with surviving townspeople are fascinating, describing the commitment and real hardship these folks had to have to continue to serve the young men coming through on train after train, hundreds of men a day. Interviews with veterans who remember the stop are equally moving. They all were so impressed by the generosity and friendliness of the people of North Platte. Some of those letters caused pen-pal relationships to form. A few even led to marriages!

"Once Upon a Town" is not a long book, but it is one of the most uplifting books I've ever read. Greene talks about the modern town of North Platte, as well, and it's a good snapshot, as I can testify, having been there. I don't want to tell you any more about it here; just grab a copy and enjoy! It's a window into a certain place and time that is well worth looking through!


Rose said...

I've read some of Bob Green's columns and do enjoy his writing. I'll have to check out this book sometime--you're right about watching and reading the news. I find it can be very depressing, and the news media so often focuses on just the bad news. It's nice to hear about the goodness in the world once in awhile!

Joyce said...

Rose, as I was reading this book I realized these people in Nebraska were some of the same ones who suffered through the Dust Bowl in the years before the war. Whew! How did they do what they did? Would we be that strong (and nice!) nowadays? I hope so, but I don't know.

Sue bees said...

I live in Nebraska and am very proud of how Nebraskans are willing to help those in need. I have read the book and it is very typical of what Nebraskans do for each other. Recently a small town in Nebraska was hit by two tornados that wipe out the whole town. Our tow had a drive for bottle water to be sent to them. I was amazed at how many bottles of water were collected by a group called Mosaic. This is a group of individuals who have special needs of their own. I certainly am proud to be a Nebraskan.p