Jeff Miller's grandfather never talked much about how he happened to meet Jeff's grandmother while he was assisting civilian relief efforts in German-occupied Belgium during the Great War. That reticence stirred Miller's writerly curiosity about the little-known exploits of the American-led Commission for Relief in Belgium, which went to ingenious and extraordinary lengths to prevent the starvation of millions trapped behind enemy lines during the long, bloody conflict.
Thirty years ago Miller inherited many of his grandfather's CRB papers and his grandmother's diary, which offered fresh insights into that grim struggle. That led to a sprawling historical novel, a project that Miller eventually shelved, and now to something even more ambitious: a three-volume nonfiction account detailing the biggest relief effort the world had ever seen. The first volume, Behind the Lines (Millbrown Press), is showing up in bookstores this month, which coincides with the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the CRB on October 22, 1914.
Miller, a veteran magazine editor and author of a history of Stapleton International Airport, decided to self-publish his trilogy in order to get the first volume out this fall, in time for the anniversary. But this is no amateur effort; it's already received a Star Review from Kirkus and is finding a place amid the tide of World War I studies coming out now. The impressive research and generally crisp writing transforms what could have been an arid study into a dramatic and at times inspiring narrative.
Miller weaves back and forth between the grand sweep of the invasion of Belgium and up-close, anecdotal material and observations concerning his grandmother's family and others in the path of the Kaiser's troops. Reports of atrocities helped to spur international relief efforts, particularly after it became apparent that the occupying, pillaging army was making no provisions to feed the civilian population.
But getting tens of thousands of tons of flour and other supplies through the war zone required some intricate maneuvering -- much of it engineered by young mining tycoon Herbert Hoover. Readers who know of Hoover mainly for his hapless presidency at the onset of the Great Depression may be surprised by his central role as the brash but canny negotiator here, persuading the belligerents to let the relief shipments through. (As it turned out, the German high command saw distinct advantages in letting the Americans feed the Belgians and eventually a hunk of northern France as well, while the Allies were more hesitant, hoping that starvation might provoke more insurrections.) But Hoover is hardly the only hero in Miller's sprawling story, which also includes a group of American Rhodes scholars from Oxford who join the campaign.
The chief drawback of the book -- call it a pet peeve -- is Miller's tendency to fall into the little-did-they-know trope. Example: "In those last days of August with little end in sight, Hoover undoubtedly had no idea that within two short months he would be called upon to do so much more." And, speaking of the Oxford volunteers, "a select group of them had no idea that by early December they would be far from the hallowed halls of learning..." -- you get the idea, right, even if they don't? Unless they are psychic, nobody has any idea of something that hasn't happened yet, and this kind of clumsy foreshadowing is best left to old radio serials.
But aside from that occasional lapse, Behind the Lines offers much to ponder about the collision of young idealists with the brutal realities of modern warfare. It's a boots-on-the-ground account of the first world war and the politics of relief efforts that really hasn't been told before, and that's saying something.
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