Old Reads That Are Good: Vonnegut’s Overlooked Masterpiece

by gbcpl on August 28, 2014

It seems sometimes that we know Kurt Vonnegut strictly for Slaughterhouse-Five and Slaughterhouse-Five alone. It was, mind
after all, the late author’s most influential work; a satirical postmodern story featuring a WWII soldier named Billy Pilgrim caught up in the Allied firebombing of Dresden. But to know Vonnegut for Slaughterhouse-Five only does the author a disservice. I give you Mother Night (1961).

The basic story involves an American, Howard W. Campbell Jr., living in Germany as the Nazis begin their long climb to power. As the world barrels towards war, Campbell, now a member of the Nazi party, is approached by Frank Wirtanen of the U.S. War Department and asked to spy on Hitler’s Reich from the inside.

Because of his American heritage, Campbell is utilized by Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda office to spread the Reich’s message via radio and encourage his former countryman to join the Nazi cause (similar to real-life radio propagandists Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose). However, Campbell uses the broadcasts to relay strategic information to the Allies, with pauses, coughs and nuances in his voice.

The problem, though, comes at the end of the war. As Campbell has been so deeply involved with the Nazi cause, (Wirtanen is the only one to know of his double-agent status), he is seen as a traitor to his home country.

Like many novels, Mother Night has been appropriated by Hollywood. A reasonably entertaining version was produced in 1996 featuring Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin and John Goodman.

You can download Mother Night from our eBook collection.

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