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This is a quite unusual novella from John Steinbeck, and one I hadn't heard of until I found it on a book stall. Despite its relative obscurity though, it is well worth a read.
The plot is fairly simple. A small town in an unspecified European country (though probably Norway) is invaded by conquering forces because of the importance of its coal mine. Initially the townspeople are confused, but after Alexander Morden is put before a firing squad for accidentally killing one of the conquerors, the confusion soon turns to hatred, and the inhabitants wait for the moment when they can get their revenge.
This vengeful silence plays psychological havoc on the invading forces, who long to go home and be with their families: "conquered and we're afraid; conquered and we're surrounded" says one of the soldiers.
It is never written explicitly that the occupying forces are German, and that this is World War Two, but references to a war twenty years ago, when the invaders were defeated in Belgium and France, makes it obvious that this is the case.
Since the publication date for my copy of this book reads '1958', I had assumed this was a post-World-War-Two book which talks of the war from the perspective of hindsight. However, I was interested to find out that it was actually first published in 1942 and was secretly printed and distributed in many of the occupied countries in Europe in order to try and motivate the resistance movements.
The book is only 140 pages long, but Steinbeck has certainly managed to get his message across succinctly. It's nice to read a book about the war which shows the conquered people to be brave and resilient. I've been careful not to use the word 'heroes' here, as I don't think the way Steinbeck portrays the townspeople is drastically biased in their favour.
There is little evidence of the atrocities they must have endured in the hands of the invading forces, but on the other hand, they are ordinary people who try to do what is within their means to protect what is theirs, rather than gung-ho, Rambo type characters. They are well characterised people whose hopes and fears are laid bare.
I was surprised to see that the invaders are also portrayed as ordinary people, rather than as the 2D, evil typecasts they might just as easily have ended up as. Perhaps it was easier for an American, with a slightly more objective view of the war, to be able to present the very human qualities of the invading forces, but bearing in mind that it was written at the height of the war, I think he's done a pretty good job.
I think this novella is still relevant now- it doesn't strike me as particularly old-fashioned, and it is very well characterised. Essentially it's just a story of ordinary people trying to make the best out of a bad situation.