Newest review: The Fighting Bunch by Chris DeRose

November 4, 2020

Genre: Nonfiction/political history

Release date: November 3, 2020

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

A group of American soldiers returns from fighting in World War II and makes a horrifying discovery: their hometown is under siege. Not from Nazis or the Imperial Japanese, however, but corrupt politicians. Determined not to relive the horrors they just fought, the soldiers take matters into their own hands to regain their town. Author Chris DeRose examines in fascinating detail and prescient prose the battle for Athens, Tennessee, in his new nonfiction book The Fighting Bunch.

In the mid-1930s in McMinn County, Tennessee, a wealthy man decides to join politics. With blustery promises, he wins the election for sheriff. For the next ten years, Paul Cantrell holds the county, and particularly the town of Athens, under his thumb. Gambling and other illegal establishments open and run freely, as long as the kickbacks land in Cantrell’s pockets. If anyone doesn’t like his methods, he makes sure the deputies and his other cronies bring people in line.

Cantrell rises through the ranks and is eventually elected senator. He curries favor with other men of like minds at the state level to cement his power. Interested in lining his own wallet and keeping the political climate to his advantage, Cantrell endorses a show of force and the people of McMinn County begin to live in fear.

They’re arrested for fabricated or minor infractions. Elections are openly rigged with fraudulent voting running rampant. Citizens trying to exercise their Constitutional rights are beaten and killed. Anyone who whispers against Cantrell is taught a lesson that often ends in violence.

Athens resident Bill White and his friends, teens during the time of Cantrell’s rule, express their frustration to one another but don’t know how they can fight against what is commonly called the machine. Then the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, and White and many of his friends join U.S. forces overseas. As they engage in active combat, thoughts of home keep them alive. Surely, they believe, after seeing the horrors of war in news reports, things in Athens would have gotten better.

White and his friends return to find exactly the opposite. Cantrell’s hold on the county has only strengthened. The young men, now military trained and wiser in life experience, decide to form their own party and introduce the GI ticket in McMinn County for the upcoming elections. Every person on the ballot is a returning soldier, and the residents of Athens express their support…while still looking over their shoulders for Cantrell’s men.

On August 1, 1946, as White and the others on the GI ticket witness firsthand the theft of ballot boxes and the violent intimidation tactics of Cantrell’s group, they hit a limit. The GIs finally take up arms and engage in a shootout with Cantrell’s men that lasts hours. They risked their lives in Europe and Asia to make sure their family and friends could live and vote in a free society; they’re not about to let their war years go to waste by kowtowing to a man too full of himself to think of the greater good.

Author Chris DeRose’s years of interviews and research shine in this enthralling account of the Battle of Athens, sometimes called the Battle of Bullets and Ballots. Cantrell’s brazenness and White’s bravery are by turns heartbreaking and inspiring. While White and the other GIs had military training on their side, DeRose reminds readers over and over that the veterans were simply men who believed in a free and equal democracy and were willing to fight for it.

DeRose’s account is especially timely, given current events. His profile of Paul Cantrell, emboldened by other men who also seek personal gain over communal good, rings true enough to life today to feel painful. The book proves that history does repeat itself. The political parties of the offenders may change, but hubris and an inflated sense of one’s importance still lie at the heart of every politician’s downfall.

Anyone wanting to serve their communities in public office would do well to study the mistakes of the past. Chris DeRose’s book makes a great addition to that necessary reading. I recommend readers Bookmark The Fighting Bunch.

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