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An American Dreamer's Search for Meaning in the Great Depression

by Ben Montgomery

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-316-43806-3
Publisher: Little, Brown

From the strange-but-true annals, a wild ride through the Depression era, one foot at a time.

Plennie Wingo (1895-1993) was an Abilene restaurateur who got on the wrong side of the revenuers by buying and selling bootleg alcohol during Prohibition. He wasn’t alone: By Montgomery’s (Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, 2014) account, half of the court cases in 1928 in Texas had to do with booze. Nor was he alone in seeing his finances crumble to dust in the stock market crash and ensuing yearslong financial downturn. But Wingo was nothing if not entrepreneurial, and he hit on an idea that was both fundraiser and protest—and, writes the author at an appropriately onrushing pace, “when a certain kind of man has a certain kind of idea, one that he considers good, that good idea takes hold of him and it swells behind his eyeballs and expands, balloon-like, so big that it crowds out all the other thoughts and ideas.” That idea was to walk across America, and maybe Europe, too, backward, selling postcards and other mementos of his madcap endeavor to support his family. It worked: Wingo remains in the record books, and he saw history unfold and had wondrous and sometimes fraught experiences (“he had barely made it through the gate of a fortified village at the foot of the ancient Bohemian castle when he noticed that the peasants seemed like they wanted to kill him”). There’s a feel at times that Montgomery is bewitched by the open spaces; his many-paged reverie on the Great Plains and their Indigenous inhabitants (“the Indians submitted and the buffalo rotted and the plains sat empty”) seems as if it really belongs in another book. Still, following Wingo’s travels makes for a pleasing enough read.

A minor-episode-in-history yarn that gets spun out a couple of dozen pages too long but that has legs all the same.