Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Moon Is Down

The Moon Is Down
by John Steinbeck
Recommended Ages: 12+

This novella, published in 1942 during the thick of World War II, sketches out a stirring tale of resistance when a free people is conquered by a totalitarian one. It was an important book in its time, with translated versions being illegally published by the resistance movements of several Nazi Germany-occupied countries in Europe. The wiki page (which I consulted just now) adds it was the best-known piece of American literature in the U.S.S.R. during the war. So, it played a significant role in resisting the German war machine through culture, somewhat like the "Leningrad Symphony" discussed in Symphony for the City of the Dead.

What I observed about it, after I plucked it out of a public library's 25-cent-per-paperback book sale, was that it has a compact (115-page), somewhat stagy form - it reads like a detailed scenario for a play, with dialogue confined to distinct scenes and only stage direction-like passages stretching the confines of the set. Yet for all its sense that the most exciting stuff is going on "offstage," it drives home its message with devastating rhetorical and emotional power. The hero of the piece, if there is one, is the mayor of the unknown town (somewhere in bombing range of the R.A.F.) who, at the start, comes across as a rather silly, unthreatening man and who, by the end, has given himself up as a sacrifice with a simplicity, a humanity, and a dedication to the service of freedom that are altogether inspiring.

I was moved; nay, I was overwhelmed by this book. I shed tears over it. I lost sleep over it. I went back and re-read several parts of it, and found them just as overwhelming a second time. I was struck by the insistent, bell-like style of Steinbeck's writing, blending clear, simple language with a sense of fateful tolling, or perhaps knocking, created by repetition of motifs. I was gripped by scenes of hysteria and dread. I was amazed by the author's thought-provoking argument that free people always win the war after oppressors win the battles. I was stunned by the application of Socrates' Denunciation in the final chapter and the mayor's perfect, parting words as he goes to his fate.

You know I'm a softie. I said as much when I admitted that Goodbye, Mr. Chips (a book of almost identical length that I picked up at the same library sale) made me weep and lose sleep. But let me point out this difference: my tears for Chips were the tears of a guy who enjoys a good sentimental wallow now and then. My tears over this book were more rough, more raw, and ultimately more spiritually enriching - a grade, or proof, of tears that can only be distilled from a perfect piece of tragedy, complete with a sense of uplift that makes it all that much more moving. Though it has been overshadowed by some of its Nobel Prize-winning author's other books, such as The Pearl, The Red Pony, East of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath, this book deserves not to be forgotten. In fact, now may be a particularly good time for a new generation to read it.

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