Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 12, 2020

The Moon is Down, by John Steinbeck

 


Today is Remembrance Day and so it seems apt that I share the story of this battered little book which belonged to my father.  It was published in 1942 under strict wartime conditions by the British Publishers Guild, who were co-operating in the publication of a comprehensive list of important books of universal appeal, published in paper covers at a very low price.  Today, three-quarters of a century later, the covers have parted company with the pages, but the heavy duty staples which took the place of proper binding are still holding the pages together.   My father was seventeen in 1942, and was a fire watcher and air-raid warden in London before joining the RAF later in the war when he was older.  It humbles me to think of him holding this book in his hands and recognising, as I soon did, that its message is one of hope.

My father was no fool: even at seventeen he would have recognised the book as propaganda just as I do.  But I like to think that he believed in its fundamental truth, encapsulated in these words at the end of the book:

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. (p.90)

The story takes place in an unnamed town invaded by an unnamed occupier at war with England and Russia, further identified as Germany by references to punctuality, officious behaviour, crisp uniforms, blind obedience to orders and a reverie of the Valkyries galloping through to the clouds to the accompaniment of Wagnerian thunder.  I assumed that the setting was modelled on the occupation of the Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey but no, Wikipedia tells me that the scenario resembles the occupation of Norway by the Germans during World War II.  (If I had seen the snowy landscapes on the Viking Press first USA edition cover, I would have known better, but it hardly signifies.)

Steinbeck shows the heroic resistance of the townspeople, led by their unassuming Mayor Orden.  The occupiers arrive, assuming that their military might confers the power they need to have their orders followed.  They regard the defeated people as orderly, and they believe that they will cooperate in an orderly way and dig up the coal that the enemy requires. But Orden demurs: he tells Colonel Lanser that while the people were orderly under their own government, which has been built for over 400 years, they may not be orderly under the invader’s government.  And when Orden is told that it is in the interests of the people to prevent them rebelling, and it is his responsibility to keep them safe, he demurs again.

Mayor Orden asked, ‘But suppose they don’t want to be safe?’
‘Then you must think for them.’
Orden said, a little proudly, ‘My people don’t like to have others think for them.  Maybe they are different from your people.  I am confused, but that I am quite sure of.” (p.14)

His words are confirmed by Annie the Cook, who arcs up at the presence of soldiers on her porch, and chucks a pan of boiling water over them.  Told that he has to discipline his cook, Orden says he can’t, or she’ll quit.  Lanser threatens to have her locked up or shot, to which Orden replies that then they would have no cook.  I don’t know if censorship had suppressed reports of German reprisals in Occupied France at the time, but even so, I think most wartime readers would have known this polite German helplessness in the face of a truculent woman was a fantasy.  And indeed the tension arcs up when Alex Morden refuses to be ordered about at the mine and kills one of the Germans with a pick.  Then there are reprisals, and the reprisals escalate as the resistance turns from sullen obstinacy and minor acts of damage to more serious sabotage and murder.

The situation becomes a spiritual siege in which the conquerors grow afraid of the conquered.  

Now it was that the conqueror was surrounded, the men of the battalion alone remained silent enemies, and no man might relax his guard for even a moment. If he did, he disappeared, and some snowdrift received his body.  If he went alone to a woman, he disappeared and some snowdrift received his body.  If he drank, he disappeared.  The men of the battalion could sing only together, could dance only together, and dancing gradually stopped and the singing expressed a longing for home.  Their talk was of friends and relatives who loved them and their longings were for warmth and love, because a man can be a soldier for only so many hours a day and for only so many months in a year, and then he wants to be a man again, wants girls and drinks and music and laughter and ease, and when these are cut off, they become irresistibly desirable.

And the men thought always of home.  The men of the battalion came to detest the place they had conquered, and they were curt with the people and the people were curt with them, and gradually a little fear began to grow in the conquerors, a fear that it would never be over, that they could never relax or go home, a fear that one day they would crack and be hunted through the mountains like rabbits for the conquered never relaxed their hatred.  (p.47)

Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove unnecessary links) tells us that:

A French language translation of the book was published illegally in Nazi-occupied France by Les Éditions de Minuit, a French Resistance publishing house. Furthermore, numerous other editions were also secretly published across all of occupied Europe, including Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, and Italian versions (as well as a Swedish version); it was the best known work of U.S. literature in the Soviet Union during the war. Although the text never names the occupying force as German, references to “The Leader”, “Memories of defeats in Belgium and France 20 years ago” clearly suggest it.  Written with a purpose to motivate and enthuse the resistance movements in occupied countries, the book has appeared in at least 92 editions across the world.

You’d think that the Americans who plotted the occupation of Iraq might have read and understood the fundamental truths expressed in this little gem by their Nobel prize winning author…


Image credit: First edition cover: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5178017


Responses

  1. […] The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck (reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers) […]

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  2. Send a copy to Putin, Xi, Kim jong Il.
    I will pay.

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    • There’s plenty of copies available for you to do that if you like… though I’m not sure that there’s a translation in Korean…

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  3. […] The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers […]

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  4. I’m not sure I’ve heard of this Steinbeck, though it runs a vague bell. Sounds worth reading, like most of his books. Love the story of your copy too. I realise that your father was born plop in the middle between my 1920 father and 1929 mother. Such a generation they were.

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    • They were indeed, In England, post war trauma, the Depression, the Blitz and then postwar austerity. And yet he never complained and rarely spoke about it.
      Re-reading what I’ve written in the light of recent events in Hong Kong is a little chastening. It must be very hard for them to be feeling hope.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Here it is coming up to 9pm and I have just this minute realised that the reason the lights are dim is that I’m still wearing (prescription) sunnies. Bed time. I have a 5am start, 2am WA time which I will have to readjust to in the next couple of days.
    I admire Steinbeck but as you point out, this sounds like propaganda, and unlike Sue, I would only read it to learn more about Steinbeck, not about occupied Norway. Still, like you, I enjoy having books with history.

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    • Ah…
      You see, I think what we see in this book is Steinbeck’s perceptions of the British, not Norway at all. Have you ever read his war correspondent reports in Once There Was a War? It’s well worth reading.

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