REVIEW: The Moon is Down

I love John Steinbeck. For me, Of Mice and Men is the most poignant, perfectly-formed small novel ever written. The Moon is Down, however, appeals to me as much for the story inside the pages as for the story outside it.

By the time this small book was published in 1942, Steinbeck was already lauded as a literary master, riding high on the success of novels like Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. He was also a political realist and knew the USA was going to be drawn into the war that was enveloping Europe.

Working with American intelligence agencies prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Steinbeck was asked to write some propaganda that would boost the war effort in occupied Europe.

He came up with The Moon is Down, the title taken from a line in Macbeth before evil descends.

But the novel split the room, much to the consternation of Steinbeck who wasn’t expecting such vocal criticism, albeit from only some.

The Moon is Down tells the story of the residents of small town in an unnamed country (which appears to be a lot like Norway) who find themselves suddenly living under occupation by invading forces. The townspeople don’t all act in the same way, some seek money and/or favour from the occupiers, others want to fight, most don’t want the occupiers there but don’t really know what to do about it. They comply with the rules but without good grace, and they bide their time.

This is not a romping page turner and there’s no great win at the end. Or is there? There is a dreamlike quality to the prose and the characters are beautifully and eloquently drawn. Steinbeck’s knack of getting under the skin of his characters and knowing what they think and how they are going to react to things comes to the fore.

And it was this knack that drew some critics.

The criticism, and it was forceful, came from the fact that the book wasn’t obvious, in your face, propaganda. The occupying forces didn’t march heavily around town screaming ‘Heil Hitler’ and hitting men, women and children in the face with their rifle buts.

In this novel, the occupying soldiers were, for the most part, civil to the townspeople. They wanted to be accepted and for them to work in harmony. They missed home and families and wondered when the war would end.

The townspeople did not immediately all riot, get shot and then win the war.

It’s more subtle than that. You can sense the underlying hate of the townspeople and the growing fears of the occupiers as the townspeople mostly do exactly what they are told to do… but slowly, with bad grace and with obstacles often appearing.

To the critics, this was no way to incite rebellion and resistance, it was all a bit damp.

But the thing is, it worked. And it worked because Steinbeck had perfectly captured the feeling of those people who were actually living under German occupation and not sitting halfway across the world idealistically jumping up and down shouting loudly about what they would do if their country was occupied. It’s never that easy.

Throughout Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, France, other areas of Europe and to Africa, China and beyond The Moon is Down was secretly translated, printed and distributed under the nose of the enemy. Just owning a copy would get you shot, that was the threat the Nazis felt from this book. Proceeds from its sale went to fund resistance organisations in those countries.

After the Allies’ victory in Europe and then Japan, King Haakon VII of Norway presented Steinbeck with a medal honouring the work he had done supporting the Norwegian Resistance. The Moon is Down was performed on stage just weeks after the Second World War ended.

The Moon is Down may not be Steinbeck’s best or most popular novel but, knowing why it was written, for whom it was written and the effect it had on the resistance movement during the Second World War makes it a work of utter, utter brilliance.

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