America in the mid-1920s was synonymous with progress—Ford was churning out automobiles at what seemed an impossible rate; Campbell’s was offering more varieties of soup than anyone could dream of;
The Man Who Walked Backward
Little Brown (2018)
America in the mid-1920s was synonymous with progress—Ford was churning out automobiles at what seemed an impossible rate; Campbell’s was offering more varieties of soup than anyone could dream of; Wall Street wantonly made millionaires. And then, it crashed. Plennie Wingo, the owner of a local café in Abilene, Texas, was just another ordinary man who lost it all. After struggling for months to feed his family, Wingo decided it was time to do something extraordinary, something that would rekindle his spirit of optimism and excitement, and maybe even make him rich. He would walk backward around the world.
A Pulitzer Prize finalist and the author of the New York Times bestseller Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, Ben Montgomery shares this unforgettable journey in The Man Who Walked Backward: An American Dreamer’s Search for Meaning in the Great Depression. Montgomery’s book sheds light on an era that reshaped how Americans saw their place in the world. It was the back side of the boom years, the golden days of Al Capone and fast-talking swindlers, the Dust Bowl and lines of hungry families. It was a time when the American heartland was a patchwork of small towns, some of which welcomed Wingo with open arms while others sent him packing. It was the time that spawned the phrase “the American Dream” and a dark period in European history.
Plennie Wingo’s belief in his enterprise saw him through harrowing physical challenges and his own comic miscalculations. With his rearview mirror glasses, his cane, and the thirteen pairs of shoes he went through over the course of eighteen months, he came to be known around the world. He walked backward through a changing America, through a Germany where Hitler was beginning to ascend, and on through Eastern Europe, Greece, and Turkey, where his adventure ended in a jail cell, his entry into Asia denied. When he got home he had four dollars in his pocket and a stack of press clippings. For all that he had done, for all the attention he had received, heartbreakingly, Plennie Wingo died in poverty in 1993, still trying to figure out a way to monetize his walk around the world.
Ben Montgomery is a masterful storyteller, and in this book he offers a rich, quirky slice of Americana, drawing on Plennie’s letters home, Plennie’s own account of his trip, and archival research on the rapidly transforming world of the 1920s and 30s. Formerly a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, Montgomery was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting and won the Dart Award and Casey Medal. He is the founder of the narrative journalism website Gangrey.com.
Photo by Octavio Jones.
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