by Libby Sternberg
The Best Years of Our Lives won eight Oscars in 1947, including ones for best picture and best actor (Fredric March), all well-deserved. The film’s story of three veterans returning from World War II and finding readjustment to civilian life difficult is both tender and slow, with a plot as wandering as the hearts of the men it spotlights.
The movie is based on a novella called Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor. It’s a long free-verse poem, actually, that brings to mind the style of Walt Whitman (the author references him in the poem itself), chronicling the first months at home in the fictional Midwestern town of Boone City of the three main characters:
- forty-something Al Stephenson, drafted at the age of 38, who is prouder of making sergeant than of becoming a vice president of the Cornbelt Bank;
- twenty-one-year-old Fred Derry who comes from the wrong side of the tracks but rose to lieutenant as a bombardier stationed in England; and
- young sailor Homer Wermel who is left a “spastic” after his ship went down. (In the movie, Homer is an amputee, and was played by the veteran Harold Russell, who’d lost both arms in a training accident during the war).
Glory for Me differs a bit from the movie, but the overall gestalt is the same–three men who’d been so eager to get home realizing they don’t know what home is anymore after witnessing struggles they never could have imagined.
Al Stephenson’s memories are made more real in the book than in the movie, as he recalls the many men lost in battle during his tour of Africa, Italy and Germany, often in gruesome ways.
Both Al and Fred Derry, in fact, often go through litanies of names, men whose planes went down or whose bodies were blown apart. How can they find happiness knowing so many lost the chance to grab it again?
“I was a bombardier,” he told himself,
A whisper that the engines shouted back.
“I was a bombardier and did my job.
Now I’m alive and Clark is not.
Neither is Stein, nor March, nor Callahan,
Neither is Olsen.“Glory for Me”
Fred Derry’s challenges are compounded by his lowered station in life. A man who mingled easily with British upper class, he now finds himself back at the drugstore where he worked as a teen, a job that diminishes him after he had been trained in a highly technical field at a job he did well.
And how much bombing will they want in Boone? They didn’t want a bit.
They only wanted you to glide attentively from counter to the soda booth
Back to the front, to Anacin, to Kleenex hoard, to drugs and sundries…“Glory for Me”
Homer’s struggle, of course, is the only physical one, and his inability to speak or move well due to his injuries makes him a subject of pity, which he loathes.
The free verse style gave this novella a dream-like quality at times that suited the story. Much of it occurs within the minds of the three main characters, and their disjointed, poetic thoughts serve the narrative well.
If you’ve watched the movie, you know each story ends well, so I won’t give away anything to note that similar upbeat denouements are in store in this novella–but not in quite the same way as in the film.
Glory for Me is a great companion to the movie based on it, but it stands alone as a must-read for anyone seeking to understand and empathize with veterans of foreign wars. I highly recommend it.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.