Book Review: “Moonglow,” by Michael Chabon

In the waning days of World War II, the US government launched a military campaign called Operation Paperclip. The United States was engaged in a frantic competition with the Soviet Union to capture one of the key spoils from the defeated Germans, the renowned aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun. The Americans won and von Braun eventually developed the Saturn V rocket for NASA.

The quest for von Braun provides some of the key scenes in Michael Chabon’s brilliant memoir-style novel, Moonglow. Chabon billed Moonglow as a memoir, but he slyly noted in an Author’s Note, “I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” Where the author took liberties, Chabon wrote, they were taken “with due abandon.”

How much of the novel is fact as opposed to fiction is immaterial. Moonglow raises troubling questions about the horrors of war and the scars it leaves on those who survive, as well as the enduring power of love, and the slippery fault line between truth and memory. The main character, Chabon’s grandfather, is never assigned a name, nor is Chabon’s grandmother.  The grandfather, a richly developed character, delivers his story in the form of a deathbed confession to “Mike Chabon.” Painkillers have loosened his grandfather’s tongue and his lurid stories range from his time in the Army to how he met his wife, from a brief stint in prison to his obsession with space travel.

What is most poignant about this story is the enduring relationship between Mike’s grandfather and his grandmother, a bond formed out of the wreckage of World War II. His grandmother, a most sympathetic character, was a refugee whose family fled their home during World War II and perished in the Holocaust. There are numerous references to her horrific childhood. As a pregnant teen-age girl (Mike’s mother), she was taken in by Carmelite nuns in France. She later emigrated to America, but she remained damage by the unspeakable horrors she witnessed. Even the deep bonds of her family and her husband’s enduring love for her could not keep her demons away.

A major theme of Moonglow is the double-edged nature of the human condition. The moon serves as a symbol of magic, and yet it also is a dark, mysterious place. Similarly, von Braun is widely credited with playing a pivotal role in the historic first moon landing in July of 1969, but he also developed the V-2 missile for the Nazis. As the grandfather, himself an engineer, reflects on von Braun, “The poor bastard! He had built a ship to loft us to the very edge of heaven, and they had used it as a messenger of hell.”

The grandfather had enlisted in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1941. He was arrested for his part in a bizarre scheme to blow up the Francis Scott Key Bridge, but a member of the military brass, who recognized his talents, arranged for a light sentence and recruited him as part of a team that would go after von Braun. The extended series of scenes where the grandfather’s unit hunts down von Braun contains some of Chabon’s best writing. His unit ends up in a ravaged village in Nordhausen, where the grandfather learns of the secret rocket factory and the horrors of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Refugees were forced to work on the V-2 rocket under cruel conditions. A total of 20,000 died of starvation, malnutrition and mistreatment before the U.S. Army liberated the camp in 1945.

When an aging priest leads grandfather to the rocket site and a trove of documents, he  abandons his quest for von Braun. The grandfather never forgave von Braun for what he saw as his duplicity in the deaths of 20,000 victims who labored under cruel conditions at the rocket factory.  Years later, when man landed on the moon, the space-obsessed grandfather walked out of the room rather than witness the historic event on TV.

One of the great pleasures of reading a Chabon novel is his brilliant prose. Chabon is a virtuoso with words and every time I read one of his books, there are passages that make my want to stand up and cheer. Moonglow is no different. Though the narrative flow is sometimes difficult to follow as the scenes are out of sequence, this is a book I highly recommend.

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