book review of Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
The book Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is about a man named Howard Campbell He is an American in jail in Israel for war crimes he committed during World War Two. Campbell was a Nazi propagandist who made many broadcasts during the war. What most people didn’t know about him was that he was actually a spy for the United States. He had been living in Germany with his German wife when he was approached by an American agent. Campbell agreed to spy for the United States. This affected the way he would live for the rest of his life.
I thought Mother Night was very good book. I usually like books about war. I especially enjoy reading books about World War II because of my Jewish heritage. This book had an interesting plot and is not a typical war book. It doesn’t concentrate on a group of soldiers nor a number of battles; it concentrates on one man’s journey before, during, and after the war. I found the character development to be fascinating. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about Campbell. The more I learned about Campbell, the more I wondered about his guilt.
Even though Mother Night is a fiction book, it reads as a nonfiction book. Any of Campbell’s experiences could have possibly occurred during the war and the spy might still be hidden from the public’s knowledge, unlike Campbell. I’m sure there were Americans who were spies who had difficulty accepting what they had done as a spy, just as Campbell had. These are some of the real life connections that make this book so interesting to read.
Vonnegut makes the book appear to be a nonfiction book by starting out the book with an editor’s note in which he claims to be Campbell’s editor. Vonnegut develops the story as the written confessions of Campbell. This book is told from a first person point of view. Howard Campbell, the main character, tells his story from a jail cell in Jerusalem and recalls the actions that caused him to be on trial. The reader only knows Campbell’s side of what happened and therefore must decide for himself how much of what Campbell is telling is the truth.
The book begins in a jail cell in Jerusalem where Campbell is being held until his trial. When Campbell starts telling his story to his guard, the setting shifts to Nazi Germany just before the war. As the story continues the setting changes to Nazi Germany after the war and then to the United States where Campbell eventually settled. The book ends where it begins, in a jail cell in Jerusalem.
Vonnegut states what I consider to be the theme of this book in the introduction - “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” In the book Campbell pretends to be a Nazi and it ends him up in jail. Even though he wasn’t a real Nazi and everything he was doing was for the benefit of the US winning the war, he is still being punished as a Nazi.
Vonnegut uses irony in this book to show that people are not always what they appear to be. Many of the characters in the book are pretending to be someone else. Campbell’s friend George Kraft turns out to be a Russian spy and he is the one who informs a Nazi sympathizing newspaper of the location of Campbell, the famous Nazi propagandist. Campbell had confided his “real” identity to Kraft as a friend, only to later find out that Kraft is a spy. It is ironic that Kraft, someone whom Campbell trusted, was hiding his identity from Campbell, just as Campbell was hiding his identity from Kraft. Kraft never learns that Campbell was not confiding the truth.
Mother Night makes you think about what should be believed. It is a compelling story that many people can enjoy. You don’t want to put this book down once you start to read it. The beginning of the book draws you in and makes you want to know more about Campbell’s story and why he is in jail. Not only does the book make you question whether Campbell is innocent or guilty, it makes you question what is right and what is true. This is a book that makes you think. I would highly recommend it.