Published toward the end of the Second World War, They Dream of Home is one of the first novels to take on postwar issues. On the dust jacket of the movie tie-in edition (left), James M. Cain praised the author “not only for his racy, pungent, vivid literary gift, but for the shrewd observation and consistent understanding he brings to bear on the great social theme he has chosen.” Viewers of Ken Burns’ The War might find the book especially interesting. (The film adaptation, incidentally, was a turkey.)
They Dream of Home by Niven Busch. D. Appleton-Century Co. (1944), 307 pp.
In 1943 four G.I.s return from fighting in the South Pacific to resume civilian life in Los Angeles. Leading the group is Gunny Watrous, a grizzled Marine sergeant now too old for combat. The others have been disabled in some manner: Perry Kinchelow, a black paraplegic once known for his strength; Matt Klein, a grocery-store owner with a crumpled knee and a bogus wife; and Cliff Harper, a nineteen-year-old still suffering psychologically from a serious wound. The fifth member of their band, William Tabeshaw, a Zuni Indian scout, remains overseas. The returnees pledge to keep the group together as they try to find places for themselves in a country at war but not in combat.
This book is more than a character study. It’s a prediction of what will come when 1943’s trickle of returning veterans turns into a flood at the end of the war. Some of the men will be have serious troubles -- physical disablity, psychological disorder (PTSD in today's terminology), problems at work and in personal relationships. More than that, society itself will need to change. The veterans won’t be satisfied with the status quo ante. They’ll want a bigger cut of the American pie. African Americans, in particular, will demand recognition, a point Busch deserves special credit for making. Readers might wish the characters had greater complexity and the writing more pizzazz. Even so, the book provides an insightful depiction of American ambience and attitudes during World War II.