THE TURKEY WAR by Douglas Unger
Kirkus Star

THE TURKEY WAR

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Unger has already demonstrated (Leaving the Land, 1983; El Yanqui, 19861 a flair for rooting personal turmoil in a socioeconomic context; here, he does it again, finding high drama in a midwestern turkey processing plant manned largely by German POWs during WW II. The setting is Nowell, South Dakota, and the company is Nowell-Safebuy, both familiar from Leaving the Land. Forty-two-year-old Mose Johnson is chief yardman, a turkey expert who dreams of creating his own breed, and a decent, deeply religious man who has lived alone since wife Adelle deserted him for a travelling salesman. Starting in 1943, German POWs arrive in the state, some to work on the land, but many hundreds to work at Safebuy. Production is increased from eight hundred to a whopping five thousand birds a day, and the boss, Buster Hill, promotes Mose, against his will, to production manager. Quality declines, accidents increase, and Mose, too principled to console himself with Carol McCann, most available of the local grass-widows, takes to the bottle. Meanwhile, the townspeople generally accept the Germans, valuing them as excellent workers (the farmers in the diner listen spellbound as Mose's interpreter, another decent man caught in the middle, recounts his Afrika Korps experiences); but things move to a climax when the Germans are ordered by their Hauptmann to sabotage production. This incenses Buster, who prods Mose into a showdown with the officer. The results are tragic: the Hauptmann, already weakened by hepatitis, dies from Mose's savage kicks, while Mose, though eventually exonerated, is consumed by self-hatred, having committed both murder and fornication (he had fled to Carol after the showdown); he becomes a full-blown alcoholic. But for Buster, who made Mose his fall guy, and the American CO, getting rich by skimming the prisoners' wages, there is no retribution. A seldom-explored area of home-front history comes compellingly to life in this vital, keenly observant, compassionate work.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1988
Publisher: Harper & Row