The story behind this short John Steinbeck World War II novel is as fascinating as the book itself. Steinbeck, a world famous author by the start of the war, was deeply concerned about the rise of Fascism in Europe. He’d noticed the Fascists’ clever use of propaganda and urged the precursor to the CIA, for whom he worked, to create their own. In 1941, Steinbeck wrote The Moon is Down, which is largely based on conversations with people who’d fled their occupied countries. The book would become one of the most read underground novels of the war, with thousands of copies printed clandestinely in France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands. Judging by its success, it must have played a role in mobilising resistance and keeping up morale.
The story is set in an unnamed country, but the similarities with Norway are striking: the climate, the turncoat Prime Minister (Quisling) and the pitiful military response to the invasion. Even though the invading country’s name or leader is never mentioned, we all know who Steinbeck’s referring to.
The invasion proceeds without much bloodshed. Instead, the occupying forces find a silent, stubborn resistance; ‘the hatred […] deep in the eyes of the people.’ Acts of sabotage, large and small, start to happen. Drunken soldiers disappear without trace, essential machinery takes ages to be repaired, meals at restaurants are inedible, repeated avalanches stop the trains. Soon, the invading forces moral starts to wear thin and they come ‘to detest the place they had conquered.’
The Americans were unimpressed with the novel arguing that the enemy was portrayed too civilly. But that didn’t discourage occupied people from reading it, perhaps the portrayal was closer to the truth than the American’s realised? After all, Steinbeck based it on refugee testimonies.
The Moon is Down is essentially a call to resist, to wear out the enemy, to make them feel so hated that they eventually give up. And they will ‘…it is always the herd men [followers of a leader] who wins battles and the free men who wins wars.’ It’s also an appeal to be brave; executions do nothing to frighten or subdue the resistance. Steinbeck’s message seems to be: ‘we’re cheering on you, don’t give up.’ We now know that thousands of people must have taken comfort from it.
The Moon is Down is not Steinbeck’s greatest literary work, the characters feel stilted, the action at times staged. It should be read for what it is – war time propaganda – and that’s precisely what makes this book so fascinating. And please do read the introduction before you read the novel, it makes it infinitely more interesting.
The Moon is Down is published by Penguin Books, 112 pages.