I admit that I am not a great fan of the 20th Century American novel, though it turns out in retrospect that my educational exposure to Steinbeck included The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Cannery Row. In more recent years I have come to appreciate his non-fiction work and especially his journalistic reports during World War Two, collected in Once There Was a War.
This Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition of John Steinbeck’s World War Two resistance novel includes a very informative 18 page introduction by Donald V. Coers, Professor of English and scholar of Steinbeck’s body of work. Also included are more than three pages of suggested further reading.
This introduction recounts how Steinbeck worked with the U.S. Office of Coordinator of Information and “Wild” Bill Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to support the Allied war effort. Steinbeck’s work in that regard brought him into contact with displaced citizens and refugees from a number of European nations then under Nazi occupation.
In late 1941, Steinbeck conceived the idea for a short novel about the experience of being invaded and occupied. Reworking a first draft that was set in America, he published this final version as The Moon is Down in March, 1942. It was soon staged on Broadway and in 1943 a film version premiered. Critical reaction was varied and often quite strongly negative. However, according to Professor Coer’s account, this short novel was well received in the afore-mentioned communities of wartime exiles. Their positive response led to the text being smuggled into Occupied Europe. In Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, and eventually China, clandestinely translated, printed or mimeographed editions were distributed by underground resistance organizations and became a strong element in pro-Allied propaganda campaigns. Nazi occupation forces banned the book (even in Germany) but copies were actually for sale in several countries as a fund-raising effort by the resistance.
The story itself is told simply in neat, clean prose. The events of invasion, occupation, etc., are narrated without benefit of Hollywood style drama. Neither the occupied nor the occupiers are ever identified by nationality or geographic location. The action is set almost entirely in and around a small simple town, with the sea on one side and farmland surrounding it on land. The reader is introduced by name to the individual citizens and soldiers interacting in this small drama, but we are offered no information about the larger world and larger war beyond the victory of the occupiers. The story is thus embodied at a very personal scale as each individual is presented with choices and makes decisions about how to react in this new situation.
I think Steinbeck’s choices in this work explain why it had such a popular response in so many different occupied countries. It is a story in many ways still relevant today in a world still marred by armed violence that crosses borders and reaches even into peoples’ homes.