Let’s say you have the chance to read a lesser-known work by a famous author. Should you bother? Why should you take the time to read a book that probably no one else knows? After all, Mark Twain said classics were books that everyone claims to have read but actually haven’t.
But let’s say this was a novella from John Steinbeck, author of Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath.
All of the above titles are reasonably famous. But there’s another you might consider reading. It’s called The Moon is Down. The book’s curious title comes from a line in Macbeth, in which Banquo asks his son Fleance, “How goes the night?” and Fleance replies, “The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.” It is in the following scenes that SPOILER ALERT (Can there be a spoiler alert for a 500 year-old play?) Macbeth kills the Scottish king and usurps the throne, setting the stage for rebellion against Macbeth’s illegitimate rule.
It is in this context that The Moon is Down is set. Written as Allied propaganda during World War II, it is presented as a parable that shows the determination of occupied peoples to resist their oppressors. The story takes place in a country occupied by a country “at war with England and Russia,” also described as a country that “invaded Belgium and France twenty years before”—so, if you weren’t paying attention, that country is Germany.
Apparently Norway is the allegorical setting since the Norwegian king gave Steinbeck a medal for his writing, but that is unimportant. What is special about this book is that in a very short amount of time Steinbeck humanizes both the invaders and occupied peoples; instead of portraying the German officers as pure cold-blooded killers (like most Allied propaganda), the German officers all have distinct traits; some are lovesick, some are cruel, one is an Anglophile, some have combat experience and wisdom. Despite their humanity, they are prone to mistakes, such as placing their faith in “The Leader,” a euphemism for Hitler, sticking to rigid and brutal military policy, and following orders (from an idiot spy with no political awareness).
Because the invaders rule the town illegitimately, eventually their policy of shooting saboteurs and murders backfires as more villagers sabotage the coal mines and kill officers—as the tensions escalate, the officers institute more force, causing an intensification of the conflict, just as in Macbeth.
The town’s heroic figures are Mayor Orden and Doctor Winter, who do their best to represent the people, undermine the invaders, and celebrate freedom.
Incidentally, one of the book’s shortcomings is that it is too short. Not even reaching 150 pages, the novella develops the town’s growing resistance and the invaders’ deterioration at a brisk pace. It could have gone on much longer if Steinbeck had wished, which may have strengthened the story and made this book as well known as The Grapes of Wrath.
So, even if you can’t name-drop The Moon is Down, it’s still a highly recommended read. It’s quick, it’s well done, and it cautions the horrors of war while extoling the tenacity of democracy. What’s not to like?
The Moon is Down
Originally published 1942, republished 1995
144 pages, Penguin
What is a lesser-known work by a famous author that you enjoyed? Comment below!