Book Review: Steinbeck's The Moon is Down
I recently finished reading a book made up of only 8 chapters. Short? Yes, but man, what a read.
John Steinbeck’s novel, The Moon is Down, centers around a small Norwegian town occupied by the Nazis during WWII. Although the novel never explicitly labels the occupiers as Nazis, the book was published in 1942, when things in Europe were pretty heated and Hitler was dominating anyone and everyone who didn’t bow to his twisted leadership.
I learned from the introduction written by Donald V. Coers that Steinbeck wrote the book as a propaganda piece to help the war effort in America. His critics were unduly harsh towards the novel when it was published, even going so far as to question his patriotism and anti-fascist beliefs because they felt he was not hard enough on the Nazis.
Steinbeck said of his critics, “The war came on and I wrote The Moon is Down as a kind of celebration of the durability of democracy. I couldn’t conceive that the book would be denounced. I had written of Germans as men, not supermen, and this was considered a very weak attitude to take. I couldn’t make much sense out of this, and it seems absurd now that we know the Germans were men, thus fallible, even defeatable. It was said that I didn’t know anything about war, and this was perfectly true, though how Park Avenue commandos found me out I can’t conceive.”
The novel depicts the Nazi occupiers as stiff conquerors in the beginning, cold and unfeeling machine men who plow into the community, killing a group of townsmen. After waking from a sort of disbelieving dream state, the townsfolk begin to hate them. The German officers are confronted with this underlying hatred in ways that causes them to feel intimidated and belittled. They begin to speak to each other of home, women, and how nervous they feel living among those who hate them. Some even question if they will ever be accepted.
I do understand his critic’s aversion to this humanizing portrayal of the Nazis. In my own mind, they are people who became monsters after being brainwashed by a totalitarian leader. But in reality, the philosophies and cultural shifts of the day brought about these beliefs. Enter philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, who believed all men are animal-like and only the strong will survive.
In essence, Adolf Hitler was in the right place at the right time and was only parroting the humanist views that took root in the colleges and universities, eventually making their way into the church.
The title of the novel is a reference to Shakespeare’s famous play, Macbeth. According to Coers, “Just before Banquo and Fleance encounter Macbeth on his way to murder Duncan, Banquo asks his son, ‘How goes the night, boy?’ Fleance replies, ‘The moon is down; I have not heard the clock,’ foreshadowing the descent of evil on the kingdom.”
Such a dark and foreboding title cannot be ignored. Sometimes I fear that the darkness spoken of is making itself known again in our own time, what with the rise of Islam which brings with it its own demonic horrors that when considered in total, resemble almost exactly the thinking of the Nazi regime.
Not to mention Western culture’s disconcerting inclination to welcome this totalitarian ideology with open arms.
As the novel progresses, we see the oppressed townsfolk begin to awaken to what it means to be occupied. The only rules enforced are those stated plainly by the Nazis. Everyone is living in fear, and they even begin to fear each other to some extent, worried whether or not someone they know will snitch on them to the Nazis about their underground resistance work.
Steinbeck’s epic novel was printed and distributed in the thousands across America and the world. During the war, to possess a copy of it meant death for anyone living in fascist Italy. It was smuggled in and out of Nazi occupied countries and translated into several languages by Dutch editors and those working with any form of underground resistance. The Moon is Down even made it to China, where it was translated and well received by thousands of Chinese people who were occupied by the Japanese at the time in 1942.
As a writer myself who is outspoken about many issues pertaining to Western culture, faith, family, and philosophy, I am inexplicably drawn to this little novel. I am afraid of being seen as mean, unfeeling, or hateful by those who read my work, but after reading this book I understand why writers are so important and why their voices are so needed.
Steinbeck created something that gave people hope all across the globe when it seemed there was none. Through the medium of a story, he highlighted their precarious situations, and those who read it were brave enough to defy the Gestapo in order to distribute it to anyone who would read it.
He received a medal from King Haakon of Norway for his work and contribution to the war effort. Coers states that when he was asked how he knew what was going on with the Norwegian underground effort, Steinbeck said he wrote what he would do if he was in the same situation. The Norwegian people and others across the globe who survived the wave of Nazism made it clear to Steinbeck that they were forever grateful for his contribution to the war effort.
This fact and the novel itself is a testament to the power of the written word. Stories make men and women stand up in the face of death.
Although it was written as a propaganda piece, the novel continues to offer timeless lessons about the survival of a democratically driven people, the force of the human spirit, and the impact of the written word on generations to come.
Now that I have experienced its simple beauty, I encourage others to do the same. I hope they will consider the fact that if we do not stand up as the Norwegian underground did, our fate will be to fall on our knees before conquerors who have no regard for human life and the freedom that unites us all.
”from the direction of the mine a whistle tooted shrilly. And a quick gust of wind sifted dry snow against the windows.
Orden fingered his gold medallion. He said quietly, ‘You see, sir, nothing can change it. You will be destroyed and driven out.’ His voice was very soft. ‘The people don’t like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars. You will find that it is so, sir.’”