Book Review: “The Moon is Down” by John Steinbeck (1942)

“The famous novel of a town that fough back against the Nazi conquerors in World War II”

It’s fascinating to me to consider what differentiates an average piece of fiction from true literature. It can’t simply be the name of the author or the echoing effects one massive literary hit has on everything else he writes. It’s not the amount of internal musings over the level of action. It’s not even the power of metaphor! I’ve read both great examples and poor of all of these, yet when I pick up a book, I feel like I know whether a piece is truly literature or not. The Moon is Down is one such example.

This piece of literature is an excellent appraisal of the human sides of war. Set in WWII when a German division invades a European village, the invaders attempt to maintain a presence in the village without fulling taking it over. “Live your lives like normal,” they tell the people. “Pretend we’re not here.” Their thought is to own a foothold in the region, in case the future demanded a stronger position, but in the meantime to just play the friendly-guardian card. But this set-up does not work on the majority of villagers, a people who refuse to be conquered.

When the killing eventually commences, it comes from the invaded to the invader, a sorrowful situation that ultimately brings reprisals. The fighting and killing continues until conquered friend is killing conqueror friend and vice-versa. While there seems to be little ideology involved behind the “why” of all these killings, beyond the explanation that it’s what “the Leader” (Hitler) wants, even the German soldiers in their quietness consider the Leader and his violent desires crazy.

John Steinbeck apparently caught a lot of flack for this book when it was released in 1942, and it was soon banned in the U.S. Whether this banning stemmed from his having humanized the Nazi enemy or from a more general “anti-war” philosophy, it’s hard to say. Nevertheless, The Moon is Down has long outlived its negative press, and can now be enjoyed as the literary piece it is. And as a soldier myself, it’s nice to have been able to read such a piece of fiction that gets deep inside the fearful heart of a soldier deployed. I do hope that it’s not somehow still considered anti-military, because I enjoyed it a lot and its messages stuck with me for quite a while.

I first completed this book shortly before I began Officer Candidate School, and I found two particular passages thought-provoking for that stage of my life.

The officers were a reflection of their men, more restrained because their training was more complete, more resourceful because they had more responsibility, but the same fears were buried a little deeper in them, the same longings were more tightly locked in their hearts. And they were under a double string, for the conquered people watched them for mistakes, and their own men watched them for weaknesses so that their spirits were taut to the breaking point. The conquerors were under a terrible siege and everyone knew, conquerors and conquered, what would happen when the first crack appeared. (60)

“You’re not a man anymore. You’re a soldier. Your comfort is of no importance and, Lieutenant, your life isn’t of much importance. If you live, you will have memories. That’s about all you’ll have. Meanwhile, you must take orders and carry them out. Most of the orders will be unpleasant, but that’s none of your business. I will not lie to you, Lieutenant. They should have trained your for this, and not for flower-strewn streets. They should have built your soul with truth, not led it along with lies. But you took the job, Lieutenant. Will you stay with the job or quit it? We can’t take care of your soul.” (101-102)

©2016 E.T.

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