Well before the United States entered World War II, John Steinbeck became involved in several government intelligence and information agencies because he wanted to fight fascism. By September 1941 Steinbeck decided that he would write a work of fiction using what he had learned from European refugees about the psychological effects of occupation on people living in countries which had come under Nazi control. This novella is the result. Set in a village in an unnamed country, it focuses on the experiences of the locals as they deal with occupation by the armed forces of another unnamed country. The text makes it clear that the occupier is meant to be Germany, and while the occupied land could be a number of European countries, it is very much like Norway. The narrative describes the arrival of the enemy soldiers, the reaction of the villagers to occupation and of the soldiers to the act of occupying, the involvement of a local collaborator and the population's growing determination to resist the enemy and fight for freedom.
Even though the work was specifically designed to be a piece of anti-Nazi propaganda, Steinbeck avoided stereotyping the invading soldiers. Instead, he showed them as human beings with differing attitudes to their role, missing home and their families and trying to justify their position to the locals. He was criticised for this. While many critics praised the work, some influential critics accused Steinbeck of being soft on the Nazis and suggested that the novella would demoralise victims of Nazi aggression in occupied Europe. Those particular critics were wrong. After the war, the King of Norway gave Steinbeck a medal in honour of the influence of the work in Norway and it later came to light that although the Nazis banned the book, it was translated, illegally printed and distributed throughout occupied western Europe. And not only in Europe: the book was also circulated in parts of China under Japanese occupation. If anything, by portraying the occupying soldiers as human beings and not as monsters, Steinbeck showed that they could be defeated.
The work has the feeling of a parable, almost of a fairy tale. It is heavy on dialogue and relatively light on description. In common with many short works, the characters are lightly sketched in rather than well-developed. As befits a work of propaganda, it is somewhat didactic in tone. Overall, it's fair to say that in terms of literary merit, this is far from Steinbeck's best work. However, the simplicity of the writing had a purpose. As I was reading, it struck me that the work would have been relatively straightforward to translate. To translate a work of literature generally requires background-speaker level fluency in the original language and the language into which the work is to be translated. However, the language in this work is relatively simple and the complexities of metaphor and idiom are avoided. Anyone reasonably competent in English could have translated the work with the assistance of a good dictionary. That Steinbeck could adapt his writing style to such an extent, while still producing elegant prose, is a testament to his skill.
Even though this is not Steinbeck's best work, it's still a thought-provoking read. It gets four stars for being a satisfying literary work and an additional star for being an interesting historical artifact.