The York Patrol: The Real Story of Alvin York and the Unsung Heroes Who Made Him America’s Most Famous Soldier, by James Carl Nelson, William Morrow, New York, N.Y., 2021, $28.99
James Carl Nelson’s profile of one of World War I’s most iconic soldiers sets up an interesting dichotomy—how a book can be intriguing enough to read through to the end and yet not be completely satisfying. On its face, The York Patrol is yet another retelling of the life and experiences of Alvin C. York, a sergeant who led a squad of American soldiers in the capture of more than 130 German troops in France’s Argonne Forest in 1918. Through the course of the book the reader will become intimately familiar with York and his numerous ups and downs, notably his struggles with the fame brought about by his combat actions and the recriminations he received from fellow soldiers bitter about the lack of public recognition for their own efforts.
York’s World War I exploits were indeed courageous, and through a good bit of luck and timely journalism, he became a national icon for a people weary of war and hungry for heroes. While the details of York’s actions in France are exciting, the most compelling aspect of the narrative is Nelson’s revelation of the troubles that plagued York in the years following his return stateside. Wanting to raise funds for schools and roads in his rural Tennessee yet loath to monetize his acts as a soldier, York struggled through these contradictions to sign book deals (and eventually a movie deal) that brought in great sums of money for his altruistic programs. Unfortunately, he mismanaged those funds and wound up bankrupt, relying on the grace of others via donations and trusts to bail out the war hero. These chapters are truly fascinating and stand as powerful tributes to how giving people can be, sometimes to their own detriment and financial harm.
Conversely, while Nelson succeeds in providing the reader an outstanding account of York’s life and actions, he falls short of doing the same for the other members of York’s squad, despite having made that a stated goal of the book. Indeed, the first 100 pages focus almost exclusively on York. Nelson eventually includes information on the other members of the patrol, but his emphasis is on the lead character. It must also be noted that the author, in an attempt to hammer home York’s rural Tennessee upbringing, overuses a number of deprecating terms to describe the man, dropping such descriptors as “country bumpkin” and “hillbilly” with unnecessary frequency.
In the end, The York Patrol is an interesting yet imperfect account of a famous American soldier and the trials and tribulations that befell him over the years. By relating York’s struggles as well as his successes, the author conveys the true depth and complexity of the man. While falling short of the mark on his intended thesis and slipping into occasional verbosity and the use of unneeded pejoratives, The York Patrol remains a worthwhile read for anyone interested in learning about an unlikely hero from one of the world’s most devastating conflicts.
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