Review of Michael Chabon’s “Moonglow: A Novel”

tags: book review, Michael Chabon, Moonglow

Robert Huddleston is a semi-retired writer and book critic. He is the author of "Edmundo from Chiapas, Mexico to Park Avenue: A True Story of a Mexican-American who became a World War II spy and married a German Princess."

In his AUTHOR'S NOTE at the beginning of the book, Michael Chabon advises the reader that “in preparing this memoir [of my grandfather] I have struck to the facts except when facts refuse to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” Here Chabon is referring to his “novel,” however, this applies to most, if not all, personal memoirs. What is the reader to make of this? The author goes on to declare, “Whatever liberties have been taken with dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members or historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon (my emphases).” To fully understand the Author’s Note and appreciate this remarkable book the reader needs to know how the story was orchestrated.

The novelist, Michael Chabon, places himself into the story as “Mike,” a precocious young lad who takes to badgering his grandfather (no other identification )about his life. What emerges is a loosely connection of memories that come as the old man remembers. Unlike the historian who develops a biography in a chronology, grandfather jumps back and forth in time; encountering a prostitute in the Great Depression in the 1930s followed with a stint in prison in the 1950s than back to his experience in the Second World where he was pursuing Nazi scientists. Following the war, he became obsessed by rocketry and space travel with the featured character being Wernher von Braun, Nazi Germany's rocket expert who becomes America's space age hero.

Having milked his grandfather for all the old man could recall, young Mike steps out of the story, grows up to become a beast-selling novelist and, ergo, we have Moonglow: A Novel by Michael Chabon.

While there seems to be no aspect of grandfather's life ranging from the Great Depression to the landing on the moon, two topics are by far the most detailed and captivating: his experiences in the Second World and his postwar marriage to a beautiful French Jew who survived the Nazi occupation of France, along with a young daughter --the father being one of the mysteries of the story--, but unable to cope with the experience.

Pressed by his grandson “Mike,”(that is, Michael Chabon) to describe his experiences in the Second World war, grandfather, an electrical engineering graduate from Drexel who spoke fluent German courtesy of his immigrant parents, describes how he was chosen by the director of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, precursor of today's Central Intelligence Agency) to follow combat units and “track down the scientists, technicians, and engineers on a highly classified list he had been given and capture them.” . A the top of the list “ was the name of a physicist said to be the inventive mind behind the V2 rocket.” Grandfather “never wanted anything more than being the American officer who brought in Wernher von Braun.

On the way to the German city of Nordhausen, described as the center of German ballistic rocket production, the German-speaking officer discovered a V2 rocket abandoned by retreating German forces, a finding that stimulated a life-long interest in rocketry and the exploration of space.

Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocket expert, was to be located and captured in Nordhausen. He was, however, nowhere to be found. What was discovered fueled the young American officer's hatred for the creator of the world’s first ballistic rocket that would lead mankind into space.

Badgered for details, grandfather challenged young Mike: “ You want to know what happened at Nordhausen? Look it up . . . and when I'm gone, write it all down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not the mishmash I'm making you.”

Young Mike, no doubt seeing his future as a famous writer, did indeed “write it all down.” Into Moonglow though it’s still a mishmash. With creative fiction to fit the essence of the “novel,” grandfather's account is an accurate description of the German slave labor program that resulted in the suffering and death of 20 thousand prisoners that worked on the V2 rocket launched against Allied cities. The rocket expert that the young officer was ordered to capture was, indisputably, a war criminal. And, while he professed (in later years) to have been more interested in space exploration than producing a military weapon, facts proved otherwise. In serving Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, Von Braun believed, according to grandfather, that “he was innocent of having committed war crimes [by the use of slave labor] but of having the faintest idea that war crimes were being committed there at all.” Once ordered to capture the German rocket expert, after visiting Nordhausen “the worst place on earth,” the young American officer was now determine to find and kill Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun.*

After vowing to kill Von Braun for his war crimes, the Nordhausen story and Dr. Von Braun's involvement goes into remission. What took over was “grandmother,” their meeting, the courtship, and eventual marriage. A French Jew in occupied France, she survived—her parents did not—along with a small child destined to become “Mike''s mother. “Grandmother's mental health gradually deteriorates requiring all of grandfather's time and money. Her eventual death left grandfather deeply depressed, alleviated in his later years by a brief love affair with a widow. What evolves following grandmother's death, is grandfather's full time involvement in America's space program where, following three decades, he finally encounters Von Braun.

Suffering from cancer that will end his life, the German-American space-age hero is being honored for his contributions to America's preeminent position in space exploration. Nobody wants to hear, thought the man once determined to kill him, that America's ascent to the Moon had been made “with a ladder of bones.” The encounter unfolds in a brilliant display of the author's imagination; a story affirming that it is through fiction that truth can emerge.

Moonglow is a “novel” of extraordinary effulgence by a master word craftsman; A book written as much to persuade as to inform and entertain. It is, if you accept the label, an autobiographical novel.

(Disclosure: As an American officer, I followed the same path to Nordhausen at the end of the conflict, learned of the use of slave labor, and, for a decade following the war, was employed in the rocket and space program, first at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and, later, with the National Aeronautics and Space Agency in Washington.)

*CHabon's description of the V2 rocket complex and the use of slave labor is well-documented and the author lists his sources in the ACKNOWLEDGMENTS at the end of Moonglow. For those interested, the best sources are Von Braun: Dreamer of Space , Engineer of War by Michael Neufeld, and Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen. (To this I would add A History of the DORA CAMP by Andre Sellier.)

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